Authors: Bride of a Scottish Warrior
Grace digested the comments in silence. Thanks to her, Roderick was now a formidable foe. Avoiding new enemies was not only smart, but necessary for survival. But the comments about his birth must have rankled Ewan. He acted as though the words meant nothing, yet Grace had seen the subtle flinch, the momentary crack of bravado that revealed a vulnerability. He might display an easy, open candor and a glib tongue to one and all, but at his core, he was a guarded, private man.
Being born a bastard had shaped more of his life than he cared to acknowledge and her heart ached with sympathy. It must be interminable to always be reminded that he did not possess a clear place in the world.
Grace watched him intently, but it was obvious that Ewan had moved away from the subject and would not speak of it. “It was a relief to discover the laird was nothing like his nephew,” she said.
“Aye, though I had far more choice words than
Grace nodded. “Considering the state the man was in when we left Glenmore Keep, it was wise to have made a good impression on the laird.”
Ewan tapped his temple with his finger. “I’m always thinking and planning and plotting.”
“Aye, but is any of it useful?” she teased.
“Well, now, I’ve got ye fer a wife, haven’t I?” Ewan retorted smugly.
Grace instantly sobered and her eyes slid away from his. “That might not be to yer advantage, especially with Roderick’s threat.”
“Bah, Roderick is naught but a pesky flea. Every man who sets eyes on ye is jealous of my good fortune.” Ewan bent his head and kissed her. “As well they should be.”
“Ewan.” Grace warned when he leaned in for a second kiss. “Ye are avoiding the point.”
“Nay. I’m making my own.” He kissed her one final time, then pulled back and grinned wickedly. “With all this ruckus, I dinnae even have a chance to properly greet my wife.” Holding her gaze, he raised her hand and pressed a kiss on the pulse of her wrist. “How do ye fare this morning? Are ye well?”
Grace took a deep breath of the clean, crisp air, attempting to sweep the cobwebs from her head. It was difficult to keep her wits about her when he favored her with that smoldering look, especially after the night they had spent together.
“Ye should not have let me sleep so late,” she admonished.
“Since I was the cause of keeping ye from a proper night’s rest, I thought it only fair.” His eyes swept over her, his gaze a tender caress. “Will ye be able to ride today?”
It took a moment for the meaning of Ewan’s question to penetrate her brain. The blush that came on the heels of comprehension was impossible to halt, but Grace deflected her embarrassment with a question of her own. “Will ye?”
Ewan laughed, then lifted his fingers to her cheek. He took his time admiring her, letting his lips curve into a lazy, seductive grin. “I can sit on my horse easily enough, yet my mind will surely wander as I’ll be thinking of the night to come.”
The yearning in his eyes was so tantalizing Grace wanted to fling herself into his arms. Instead, she took a step closer until her breasts pressed against his chest, then tilted her head to meet his grin. His mouth was so close she could feel his warm breath against her lips. “Ah, my husband, trust me when I tell ye that yer imaginings shall pale when compared to the reality.”
Hardly knowing where those bold, wicked words had sprung from, Grace kissed a stunned Ewan on the lips, then turned and scurried away. She quickly ate the oatcake Edna had saved, washing it down with a few swigs of lukewarm ale, all the while feeling her husband’s eyes boring into her.
Her hand shook slightly as she lifted the cup to her lips. For days she had lamented over the lack of attention from her new husband and now that he had finally showed some interest in her, she was determined to keep it.
Even though she had no earthly idea what she was doing.
They traveled the rest of the day making only a few necessary stops to water the horses and answer the call of nature. Feeling responsible for their very late start, Grace made no protest at the grueling pace, even though her muscles ached and her eyelids drooped with exhaustion.
Grace kept her cloak wrapped tightly around her to keep warm, though she enviously eyed the pouch that Ewan sipped from every now and again, suspecting it was filled with whiskey. Whenever possible, she tilted her face to the sun filtering through the clouds, basking in the warm rays.
They made camp at dusk. Ewan assisted Grace from her horse, catching her by the waist and steadying her once her feet hit the ground. Her legs wobbled, but held.
The evening meal was hot and plentiful; the conversation congenial. As was his custom, Ewan sat among his men, but his eyes found Grace’s across the open fire. They flickered against the dancing flames, the brightness telling her that he was eager to be alone with her.
Grace wasted no time in retiring to her tent. Though it felt like an eternity, Ewan soon joined her, the smoldering intent in his gaze making her quiver. The moment their lips touched, she melted inside. Ewan wasn’t gentle, but she didn’t care—she felt greedy, desperate, wild. It was a swift and fierce coupling, the merging of hungry flesh and ravenous desire. Yet it was also tender and satisfying and for Grace a reaffirmation of her wedded state.
When it was over, Ewan stretched out beside her, his chest firm at her back. She felt his fingers glide down her backbone, massaging the stiff muscles. It felt glorious.
“Are ye sore from all the riding?” he asked.
Grace smiled in the darkness. “Aye, my horse and my husband made me ache.”
Ewan laughed. “Relax, lass. I’ll make it better.”
His hands were warm and gentle as they attacked her knotted flesh. Kneading, pressing, stroking, he concentrated on each muscle until it relaxed. Grace sighed and succumbed to the soothing rhythm, grateful for the tender, considerate ministrations.
Her eyes closed as Ewan adjusted her position, resting her head in the hollow of his shoulder. His arms cradled her, offering her comfort, warmth, and security and Grace was quickly able to fall asleep.
The following days took on a similar pattern. Days spent in the saddle, nights encircled in Ewan’s arms. ’Twas as close to heaven as Grace could imagine and she relished every mile they traveled.
The men’s mood lightened as the landscape changed. They moved beyond the grand mountain ranges and dense patches of forest and climbed even higher into the hills. Here the slopes were rocky and mossy green, the air fragranced with heather, and thick white misty clouds obscured the peaks.
They rode through a thick forest of graceful, tall pines and willowy birch, then halted at the crest of a windswept ridge.
“We are nearly there,” Ewan declared, stopping beside Grace.
Anxious for her first look at her new home, Grace peered through the low fog, catching a glimpse of a stone tower and curtain wall surrounding it. The mist parted as they began descending and she could see that the keep was set on the highest point at the end of a valley that boasted sparing patches of green. A small flock of sheep gathered near the shallow river under the watchful eyes of a few old men. The clean smell of fresh rain permeated the earth and the damp ground was not muddy, but tightly packed.
“It’s not as grand as yer other homes,” Ewan remarked carefully.
It tore at Grace’s heart to hear the hesitation in Ewan’s voice. “I dinnae know where ye have gotten the notion that I expect to be bathed in luxury,” she replied wryly. “I was raised in a convent and planned on spending the rest of my days behind those simple walls.”
“I doubt the Fergusons’ hall is small or miserly. And I know the McKenna Castle is grand.”
Grace felt a frisson of disappointment at the remark. Did her husband truly know her so little? Did he honestly believe she was that concerned about the size of his home and the splendor of its furnishings?
“Even from this distance I can see that yer keep is a fine holding,” Grace said evenly. “It has simplicity and strength, which is far preferable to bloated grandeur.”
“Ye think yer brother’s castle is bloated?” Ewan smiled. “I shall be certain to mention that to him when next we meet.”
Glad to have lightened Ewan’s mood, Grace returned the smile, but it soon vanished as they entered the valley. Anticipation stirred when they came closer to the keep. The shepherds waved at their passing, as did the few workers toiling in the fields.
They rode single file through the portcullis and arrived in the courtyard. Keenly aware of the scrutiny, Grace dropped back the hood of her woolen cloak, better to see and be seen. A delicate shiver went through her as a cheer erupted from the crowd.
There were nearly a hundred people crammed into the bailey—men, women, and children—all eager to catch a glimpse of Ewan and his escort. There were many round-eyed glances cast her way and Grace realized that none were certain of her identity. ’Twas known that Sir Ewan had traveled south to find a bride, but the hasty nature of her wedding made it impossible to send word of their marriage.
The buzzing of talk stopped as an older woman stepped forward. She was tall and elegant, wearing a gown of crushed gold velvet. A ring of keys hung from the leather belt draped low around her waist. Her eyes were sharp and smoldering, her hair streaked with gray. Grace glanced at that uncompromising face and immediately knew it was Lady Moira, Ewan’s mother.
Unlike the rest of the smiling, waving crowd, Lady Moira did not look happy. At all.
Ewan swung off his horse and embraced his mother. After exchanging a few private words, he turned and came over to Grace. Extending his hand, he assisted her off her horse, then brought her forward to introduce her.
Up close, Grace could see more of a family resemblance. Ewan had his mother’s eyes and coloring, though her formality was a stark contrast to her son’s easy manner.
Lady Moira’s eyes swept her from head to toe, then she took a deep breath and let loose a great sigh. Momentarily shocked, Grace stiffened. Ewan cleared his throat loudly.
“Welcome.” Lady Moira’s greeting sounded pleasant enough, but there was a clear lack of warmth in it. And there was the tightness around her mouth that bespoke of how difficult the words were for her to speak.
Grace, taken aback by this unexpected occurrence, sank into a graceful curtsy. Then she raised her chin, tilted her head, and met that chilling glare. “I’m honored to meet ye.”
Lady Moira’s mouth tightened further. It hardly took much intuition to see that she did not approve of her son’s choice of wife. But why?
“Ewan says that ye are a McKenna,” Lady Moira said, the inflection in her voice disapproving.
“And a widow.”
“How long were ye married?”
“And in all that time ye had no bairns?” Lady Moira retorted, her eyes glittering with a disgruntled scowl.
“My husband was away from home most of our marriage, fighting fer King Robert’s cause,” Grace replied slowly, feeling the betraying warmth of embarrassment creep into her cheeks.
“Dinnae yer brother fight beside the Bruce?”
“Does he have any bairns?”
“Aye, three and another on the way.” The words were no sooner spoken when Grace realized the implication, but it was too late to avoid the question.
Grace was struck silent by the older woman’s piercing stare. Disoriented, it took her a moment to realize that Lady Moira was hoping to get a reaction from her. Much as she wanted, Grace would not lower herself to argue with the woman. Nay, the best way to cope with this rude inquiry was not to react—though that was proving more difficult by the moment.
“Yer journey was long. I’m certain ye are feeling tired.” Lady Moira waved her hand toward the heavy oak door of the keep. “Deirdre will show ye to yer chamber so that ye may rest.”
Orders delivered, Lady Moira stepped dismissively around Grace and went directly to her son.
Blessed Mother Mary, what rudeness!
Unexpected travelers were given a more hospitable greeting. Indignantly, Grace turned to her husband, anticipating Ewan’s effrontery at this treatment, but he appeared unaware that anything was amiss. He rested his arms on his mother’s shoulders, then bowed his head and again spoke to her in a low tone.
“This way, if ye please, milady.”
Grace turned to the young woman who had spoken and realized she must be Deirdre. She glanced from the servant to her husband, her feelings raw. She could almost feel the wedge of separation being driven between them.
Grace fought down her bitter words. Biting her lip in frustration, she ignored the knots that were twisting inside her stomach. This was neither the time nor the place to make a scene, especially when her husband’s support was so questionable. Barely squelching her dismay, Grace followed the maid into the keep.
The interior of the great hall was solidly built, yet bare and dark. There were no tapestries on the wall, no fire burning brightly, no decorations of any kind, not even a pitcher filled with wildflowers. The starkness reminded her of her husband’s mother—hard and unwelcoming.
“Lady Moira is not at all what I expected,” Grace muttered, dismayed at the weakness in her own voice.
Deirdre lowered her head shyly. She was a comely lass, with a willowy shape, and dark, thick hair that fell to the center of her back. Her eyes were round and honest, a pretty shade of blue.
“I know it must be difficult to believe, but Lady Moira is capable of some kindness,” the maid said.
Upset that she had betrayed how uncertain she felt, Grace merely nodded. It was a matter of pride that she play her role correctly, that she establish herself as the lady of the manor, in control of everything, including her feelings.
As they climbed the stone stairs, Grace willed away her gloomy thoughts. The bedchamber she was taken to was a pleasant surprise, holding comforts she had not seen in the hall, including a small tapestry hung on the longest wall.
A huge carved bed, which boasted a soft, overstuffed mattress, dominated the chamber. Velvet hangings were tied back with thick cords around each of the four posts. When the curtains were drawn, it would be a warm, private spot.