Authors: Bride of a Scottish Warrior
Grace bit her bottom lip, hoping that was still true, but no longer as sure. “Sir Ewan is my brother’s friend and fer some unknown reason he wants this alliance. ’Twould in truth be far easier fer Brian to accept the decision if Sir Ewan found me disagreeable and rejected me.” Grace sat up straighter, her even mood giving way to alertness. “Do ye think that’s possible?”
Edna frowned. “To make yerself unappealing to Sir Ewan?”
Grace nodded her head vigorously. “Fetch my oldest gown. Wait, nay, bring me a gown that needs washing. And the veil that has mud stains from Malcolm’s dirty little fingers.”
The disapproval in Edna’s eyes deepened. “Ye think a bit of dirt will be enough to put him off?”
“Dinnae forget the smell. I’ll be sitting beside him as he eats his meal.”
Edna scrunched her nose. “’Tis a ridiculous notion, but I can tell by the tilt of yer chin that ye are determined to see it through.”
Edna stood silently for so long Grace thought she might refuse to do as she was told. But then the maid let out a lengthy sigh and shook her head with resignation. “May Laird McKenna forgive me fer encouraging ye, but I believe I have a better idea.”
Grace could feel the stirring of interest and curiosity among the crowd the moment she entered the great hall. The tables and benches were filled with various retainers and clan members, the male and female voices raised in relaxed conversation. The seats at the high table were also occupied, except for her empty chair. Nervously fingering the edge of her gossamer veil, Grace moved forward.
She kept her gaze on the mighty timbers crossing the roof as she made her way to her seat. Although she had been forewarned that she would sit beside him at the meal, ’twas still disconcerting to catch a glimpse of the broad-shouldered figure hovering near her place.
“Good evening, Lady Grace.” Sir Ewan bowed.
Hearing her name, Brian glanced over at her, then quickly swung his head back for a second look. Grace ignored him. She sank regally into her seat, tipping her chin in what she hoped was a superior manner. “Sir Ewan.”
Sir Ewan’s blue eyes regarded her appreciatively. “Ye look beautiful. I’m honored.”
Grace’s heart sank.
Damnation! Sir Ewan obviously believes all this finery is for his benefit.
Frustrated at the poor start to the evening and needing a bit of fortification, Grace reached for her wine goblet. As she lifted it to her lips and took a large swallow, the gold and silver bracelets on her wrist clanked noisily.
“Ye misunderstand, Sir Ewan. I dress only to please myself, no one else. I simply adore pretty, luxurious things,” Grace said loftily, placing the goblet down. “Silks, satins, jewels, they are all essential items fer a lady’s wardrobe, necessities that any worthy husband provides fer his wife.”
She waved her hand dramatically, nearly poking herself in the eye with the large ring she wore on her right hand.
She had told Edna the ring was too big, but the maid had insisted that she wear every piece of jewelry she owned. ’Twas an essential part of the plan designed to showcase a frivolous, empty-headed female.
“’Tis obvious that ye deserve only the best and finest.” Sir Ewan smiled charmingly. “When I have coin to spare, I’ll shower ye with gifts fit fer a queen.”
“Coin to spare?” Grace lifted her brow. “My needs are to be an afterthought? I dinnae like the sound of that, Sir Ewan. Not one bit.”
“We must provide fer our people first,” he said gently. “As fer yer needs, well, I vow that I shall see to them far better than a cold necklace of gold and gemstone.”
Grace felt an unaccustomed warmth flood her cheek. His tone was so smooth, so inviting, it made her blush. This was not going according to plan. Edna had assured her that Ewan would find her avarice repellent. Instead, he seemed to find it amusing.
Switching tactics, Grace launched her next volley, filling every bit of silence with a constant stream of the most inane chatter she could devise. The best way to make soap, the preference for beeswax candles over tallow, the difficulty in finding good weavers to make quality cloth. Whenever Sir Ewan tried to respond, or make a comment of his own, Grace rudely interrupted, dominating the conversation like a king leading an army.
After exhausting every domestic item she could think of, Grace switched to complaints. ’Twas too cold in winter, too hot in summer, too rainy in spring. She babbled as her food congealed on her trencher and her voice grew hoarse, all the while waiting for Sir Ewan’s eyes to glaze over with boredom or annoyance or both.
It never happened.
Finally, when she had to take a sip of wine to ease the dryness in her throat, he clasped his tankard of ale in his right hand and looked her dead in the eye. “Why have ye taken such a dislike to me, lass?”
The wine hit her empty stomach in a rush. “Why ever would ye say such a thing?”
“The ones darting from yer lovely eyes telling me ye’re wishing I’d fall into a deep, dark hole and disappear from the earth.”
“Not the earth, good sir. Ye need only disappear from McKenna Castle.”
A small tick of amusement crossed his face. “I willnae overstay my welcome. But when I leave, I plan on taking ye with me.”
Grace’s shoulders sagged, but she was not yet ready to admit defeat. “I should like to save ye a good deal of time and breath, Sir Ewan, and tell ye—”
Grace blinked. Had she misheard him?
“I want ye to call me Ewan. Is that acceptable, Grace?”
No, ’tis not.
Familiarity was the last thing Grace wanted, knowing it could make her more vulnerable to him. But her brother might object if she refused and claim she was not holding to her end of the bargain. And that could spell disaster.
She could ill afford to risk Brian’s wrath, for if pushed hard enough, her brother might decide to ignore her objections and force her into the marriage. She must therefore give every appearance of being open-minded to Sir Ewan’s—
“This is not the first time the possibility of a second marriage has been raised by my brother, Ewan.” She paused. He smiled when she spoke his name. A lopsided grin that was so boyishly disarming she nearly smiled back, before blinking rapidly and regaining control of her senses. “Ye do me a great honor by asking fer my hand. Yet my answer remains the same to ye as it was to the others. I wish to retreat to the convent and a life of religious reflection. I know ’tis best fer me.”
She said the last forcefully, then felt a stab of worry that she had gone too far. Men did not like being told they were not in charge, in control, especially of females. Yet Ewan did not appear annoyed; his eyes were still dancing with merriment.
“They willnae allow ye all yer pretty baubles in the convent,” he said innocently.
“I shall manage without them,” Grace bit out.
He looked at her inquiringly, his head tilting slightly. “I’ve been told that silence is a virtue well regarded and sought after among the good sisters. Will that be difficult fer ye to endure day in and day out?”
Grace squirmed in her seat, though she supposed she deserved this bit of teasing. “I will strive and struggle day and night to hold my tongue.”
“Or ye could avoid these restrictions completely and marry me.”
“Nay,” Grace gritted out.
Sir Ewan’s jaw bulged as he clamped it together. She waited for the explosion of anger, but he was somehow able to conquer it.
“Women are known for changing their minds. ’Tis one of their many appealing traits.” His voice dipped lower, honeyed and coaxing. “What can I do to influence yer mind, fair Grace?”
“Accept the truth, good sir. I willnae change my mind nor my answer.”
She spoke each word crisply and held Ewan’s eyes as she uttered them. It seemed the best way to make him understand the depth of her feelings, the extent of her determination to remain unwed.
She braced herself, fully expecting him to cast off his flirting smiles. But he surprised her with a gentle look she found even more disarming. “I enjoy a challenge, especially one from a worthy opponent. It makes victory all the more sweet, fer nothing of great worth in this life is ever easy to obtain.”
“Yer pretty words have no effect on my decision.”
“Aye, ’tis the deeds that matter.” His eyes filled with warmth. “I willnae threaten nor cajole ye, lass. Instead, when the time is right, I’ll make my appeal to yer heart. Directly from mine.”
It took an extreme effort not to look away. Or down. To keep her eyes steadily focused on him without betraying a single ounce of emotion that was spreading through her body.
“Well, then, I suppose I cannae prevent ye from trying.” Thanks to years of practice, there was no wavering in her voice. But the same could not be said of her emotions.
Grace’s back went rigid. Who was this man? Somehow, he possessed the power to make her want the things she had never had. But worst still, he possessed the power to make her dream they were possible.
Ewan peeled open his eyes as sunshine poured in through the narrow bedchamber window. Feeling an odd combination of exhaustion and exhilaration, he rolled to his back. With morning came the chance to achieve his most important task—marr ying a lady with a substantial dowry. He had stayed up most of the night with Brian, plying his host with ale, then whiskey, in hopes of gaining some much-needed insight in wooing Grace.
Unfortunately, Ewan had not received the answers he sought. After the fifth tankard of ale and the third dram of whiskey, it was clear that Brian had no useful advice to impart. The McKenna had no idea what Ewan could possibly say, or do, to win his sister’s hand in marriage.
All Brian did confirm, with a deep thread of reluctance flowing through his voice, was his promise not to force Grace into a union she did not want, fearing the wrath of his sister, but more importantly, his wife, were he to go back on his word.
Ewan’s head ached—and not just from too much ale and whiskey. ’Twas obvious that Grace was not going to be an easy conquest. Her behavior at the evening meal had confirmed her desire to remain unwed. It would take time and charm and more than a wee bit of luck to change her mind. And the only way to accomplish that was to spend as much time as possible in her company.
Yet it was clear from their conversation last night, Grace was not going to cooperate. Nay, she would do all that she could to avoid him, of that Ewan felt certain. Yet she would quickly discover he was not a man who easily accepted defeat, especially with something as important as his future. She might be a clever lass, but she’d soon learn there were few on this earth as wily as Ewan Gilroy.
Ewan threw back the covers. As his bare feet touched the hard floor, the sound of church bells rang in his ears. Fighting his way through the cloud of sleep and drink, he realized it was a call to Mass. It took a moment for the importance of that fact to sink into his skull, but when it did, he smiled. Broadly.
Where else would a devout woman who longed only to lock herself behind convent walls be found at this hour of the morning? At Mass, of course. Which was exactly where he was headed.
Aye, ye might run from me, lass, but ye cannae hide.
Spirits bolstered, Ewan walked to a small table set below the window. Without hesitation, he plunged his head into the wooden bucket of water that had been left last night, staying submerged until the cold bit into his flesh. Feeling more awake, and completely sober, he rubbed his face and hair dry, and dressed.
He hurried down to the great hall, finding a small group of clansmen and servants gathering for the morning meal. Apparently, Brian did not command that everyone in his household attend Mass each day. Ewan hurried across the hall and out the door. Following the sound of the ringing bell, he located the chapel.
Given the number of people he had seen earlier staying in the hall, Ewan was surprised at how crowded it was inside the church. His eyes moved to the front of the chapel, searching for a glimpse of Brian’s broad shoulders, but he saw neither the McKenna nor Aileen.
He did, however, locate what he sought. A petite female stood near the altar, her hands clasped in front of her, her head bent in prayer. Ewan could see Grace’s profile through the fine weave of her veil. Though a woman of small stature—she barely reached his shoulder—she had a stately presence and a graceful, willowy form. She reminded him of a statue he had once seen of the Virgin Mary—elegant, refined, regal. Yet Grace was not cold marble, she was warm flesh and fighting spirit.
Weaving his way through the crowd, Ewan reached Grace’s side. Her eyes were closed, her lips moving in silent prayer. To get her attention, he put his hand on her arm. She drew away immediately, then turned to him, her gray eyes startled.
“Good morning, Grace.”
She turned away, but not before he saw the unease revealed in her face. Seeking to reassure her, Ewan gave her arm a little squeeze. The rosary beads clasped in her hand trembled at the gesture. Fearing he was doing little to advance his cause, he released his grip. She sighed softly, taking a step away from him. Ewan grit his teeth and resisted the strong urge to move closer to her, suspecting a show of dominating force would not be well received.
The Mass began. Ewan tried to listen to the words, but his mind was too crowded with thoughts of the woman beside him. He went through the ritual of the service by rote, always a second or two behind. Grace, on the other hand, was nearly leading the congregation, her movements a step ahead of all the others, including the priest’s.
Was she truly meant to live a religious life? Or had the many years of training left such a deep impression upon her that she could participate in the Mass even in her sleep?
Pondering these thoughts kept Ewan’s mind focused, and he was therefore surprised to realize the priest was giving the final blessing. As they filed out of the chapel, Ewan took Grace politely by the elbow.