Authors: Bride of a Scottish Warrior
“Come fer a ride with me this morning after we break our fast, Grace. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, and there’s nary a cloud to be seen. ’Tis a day meant to be enjoyed outdoors.”
“I’ve work to attend,” she answered. “If ye wish to tour the castle and the outlying grounds, I’m sure my brother would be happy to oblige.”
He kept pace easily with her quickening steps, his hand still on her elbow. She allowed it, yet he noted that she took great care not to meet his gaze.
“I have already spent a considerable amount of time in yer brother’s company,” Ewan replied. “I’m in need of a change and ye’re much prettier to look at, especially in this bright sunshine.”
He stopped abruptly, increasing the pressure on her arm. She had no choice but to stop also, her frown indicating she was not pleased about it. “Ye promised to give me a chance,” he entreated.
There was a flash of white in her eyes. “I never made any such promise.”
Ewan released his grip and folded his arms across his chest. “Well, ye should have, lass. ’Tis the polite thing to do.”
She snorted. “It is far better manners not to be badgering a helpless, defenseless woman.”
“Mayhap. See, ’tis yet another reason fer ye to marry me. Ye can teach me all the pretty, fine manners ye like. Is that not what women enjoy most—reforming a man?”
She rolled her eyes heavenward, but was saved from replying by the sudden appearance of Alec. Ewan smiled at his friend and motioned for him to come closer. As he introduced the pair, he noticed they were both assessing each other, though Grace performed the task with delicate subtlety, while Alec was openly brazen.
“Tell me, good knight, have ye come to sing me Sir Ewan’s praises?”
“Nay. ’Twould be a sour song, indeed, milady. One that could easily curdle milk.”
“He’s a good, fine man, there’s no mistake about it. I’ve trusted him with my life more times than I can count, and as I’m standing here before ye, the result is clear.” Alec’s lip curled. “But ’tis obvious to me that a lovely lady such as yerself can do better than being tied to a rogue like Sir Ewan.”
Grace smiled, appreciating Alec’s blunt humor. “Then ye agree I should reject his proposal?”
Alec leaned toward Grace and whispered, though his words were deliberately loud enough for Ewan to hear. “’Tis tempting, I’ll grant ye that, but I beg ye to spare his feelings and spend at least a few days thinking it over. It will be a kindness to all his men, fer we shall bear the brunt of his wounded pride if ye turn him away so quickly.”
Her expression lightened noticeably as she cast her eyes on Ewan. “I’ll meet ye at the stables in an hour.” Then turning to Alec, she sank to a graceful curtsy. “I am most pleased to have made yer acquaintance.”
The two men remained silent as they watched Grace walk away. But the moment she was gone from sight, Ewan turned to his friend.
“I’ll thank ye to cease charming my future bride,” Ewan snapped, feeling a stab of resentment at how easily Grace had responded to Alec. Why could she not let her guard down like that with him?
“She seemed more than ready to walk away from ye before I stepped in,” Alec replied. “’Twas embarrassing to watch.”
“Liar,” Ewan countered, wishing that were true. “She was at the verge of falling into my hands, like a ripe pear.”
Alec raised a skeptical brow, but let the matter drop. “In any event, getting into the lady’s good graces will buy ye more time to convince her brother to allow ye to wed her.”
“The McKenna has already agreed to the match,” Ewan replied, without thinking.
Alec grinned and slapped Ewan on the back. “Congratulations. I confess, I wasnae sure ye’d manage it. Will she be bringing the dowry ye need?”
Ewan held up his hand. “Dinnae start crying the banns just yet. I still have to get her consent.”
Ewan shrugged. “The McKennas are an odd sort. Grace must accept me as her husband or there’ll be no marriage.”
“I see Lady Aileen’s fine hand in all of this,” Alec replied, shaking his head. “She’s not forgotten what happened all those years ago.”
“Ye mean when she was taken?”
“Aye, by ye.”
Ewan tilted his head. “As I recall, ’twas on yer horse Aileen rode, hands and feet bound and cradled within yer arms.”
“’Twas yer orders that made it so.” Alec cast him a rueful grin. “Why did ye think I sat in the back of the hall last night, shielded by the shadows? I’m not eager to bring myself to Lady Aileen’s attention and possibly incur the wrath of her husband. The McKenna has always struck me as a man who holds tight to his own.”
“Aye.” The men were silent as they pondered that truth. “Now, why are ye suddenly grinning like a fool, Alec?”
“Well, I just realized that if the McKenna has agreed to the match, and all ye need do is charm yer bride to make it happen, then the deed is as good as done.”
Ewan grimaced, wishing he had as much confidence in the matter as Alec. Grace was not like other women. She was bent on traveling a path that led away from him and he was perplexed over how to pursue her, how to convince her to take a chance and come with him.
What he did know, with alarming certainty, was that he would need time in order to prevail. Along with a healthy dose of luck.
Ewan was still mulling over Alec’s remarks when he spied Grace entering the bailey. She had not appeared in the great hall after Mass to break her fast. He assumed instead that she had taken her meal in the women’s solar, most likely to avoid him.
He stood by the stables and waited. The sun shone pleasantly on his head. He gazed up at the sky, pleased to see only a few white puffs of clouds. At least the weather was cooperating. ’Twould be interesting to see if Grace would.
When she drew near, Ewan strode forward to greet her, a winsome smile on his face. He received a curt nod before Grace brushed past him, pleasantly greeting the lad who held her horse. Before mounting, she took the animal’s face between her hands and spoke to it in a low, soothing tone. Delighted, the horse pushed its nose against her chest and neighed. After a final, affectionate pat, she moved to mount the mare. Once she was seated, Ewan swung up on his stallion, who was already prancing about sideways, eager to be off.
“Ready?” Ewan inquired, refusing to react to her brisk manner.
“Nearly.” She tilted her head and looked at him sideways, seeming very mysterious.
Ewan smiled indulgently. Lord only knew what sort of scheme she had devised to thwart his courtship, but whatever it was, he was not about to let it pierce his good humor.
“Ah, there ye are at last,” she called out merrily. “Are ye excited fer our ride this morning?”
Ewan froze at the sound of running feet approaching. He turned just in time to see the two McKenna lads rushing into the bailey and race toward the stables.
“Ye dinnae have any objections if Malcolm joins us, do ye, Sir Ewan?” Grace asked in a voice as sweet as honey. “His pony is stout and sure-footed and can go a fair distance.”
I’ll just bet.
Having the child along would be the perfect excuse to make this a short outing. Not to mention the impossibility of getting her alone in some secluded, romantic setting. Ewan could feel the weight of her gaze upon him, waiting for his answer. Her expression remained neutral, but he could swear there was a smirk glimmering in her eyes.
“It’s not fair! I want to come, too,” the smaller one whined.
“Ye cannae,” Malcolm yelled to his younger brother. “Ye’re too little to ride on yer own.”
“Aye, ye are!”
The lad’s bickering escalated in volume and intensity. Ewan looked helplessly about, searching for either of the children’s parents. Or a servant. Or anyone who could lead the little monsters away.
“Hush now,” Grace commanded. “Or ye’ll be going nowhere except to yer chamber. Both of ye.”
“Aunt Grace!” the lads wailed in unison.
“Quiet! Do ye want Sir Ewan to think ye’re a pair of ill-mannered heathens?”
“Nay.” The older lad’s head dropped dejectedly as he pushed the toe of his boot in the dirt. “Forgive me.”
“I’m sorry, too,” the younger one piped up. “Now can I come?”
“Ye’re too little,” his brother growled.
“I am not!”
Jesus, did they never give it a rest?
Ewan braced for the bickering to begin anew, but one stern look from Grace had the lads quiet as church mice. “Go and help saddle yer pony, Malcolm.”
The lad broke into a sunny grin and scampered to do his aunt’s bidding. The younger lad stifled a whimper with the back of his hand. “Dinnae leave me behind, Aunt Grace. Please. I beg ye.”
“Och, my darling James. Ye’re a strong lad, but ye’re just learning how to ride. ’Twould not be safe.”
The lad’s bright eyes widened and silent tears began to run down his cheeks. Grace’s face crumbled with sympathy. Oddly, Ewan understood how she felt, for the lad’s earnest plea had tugged at his own heartstrings.
Ewan had been isolated his entire childhood. The unacknowledged bastard son of the earl was not easily accepted as a playmate or friend. Remembering well what it felt like to be left behind gave Ewan but one choice. “Ye can ride with me, young James.”
The swift change in the lad’s demeanor was enough to overcome the annoyance Ewan felt at being tricked into taking along a chaperone. He leaned down and scooped James up with his arm, dropping the child on his rump. All smiles, James dug his fingers into the horse’s mane, settling himself in front of Ewan. Once he was certain the child was set, Ewan picked up the reins with his right hand while steadying the lad with his left.
Using the strength of his knees, Ewan wheeled his stallion around. Grace and Malcolm were mounted and ready. He led them out of the stable and through the courtyard, spying several of his men in the area. Jaws slack, mouths agape, they watched him and his companions as they rode out.
“Which way?” Ewan asked after they had cleared the castle gate.
“Follow me!” Malcolm shouted.
His pony shot out like an arrow, heading toward the distant forest. Grace and Ewan obligingly trailed behind. James twisted around, gazing into Ewan’s face. “Malcolm always has to be the leader. Can ye overtake him?”
Ewan felt his chest constrict with empathy. It clearly wasn’t easy for young James, being the second son. “Aye, we’ll overrun him soon enough. Let’s wait a wee while, until his mount tires.”
Content with the answer, James leaned back trustingly against Ewan’s chest. It was apparent by the lad’s ease and comfort that he had ridden this way before, most likely with his father.
For a moment Ewan wondered what it would feel like to hold his own son this way. A fiery scamp, with red highlights in his hair and Grace’s gray eyes. A son he could teach, and mold, a lad that would bring him joy and make him proud. Thinking about it brought a lump of emotion to Ewan’s throat, along with the realization that a child was something he wanted to have in his life. Nay, not child, but children.
They rode for several miles, with Malcolm leading the way. Ewan kept a sharp eye on the lad, all the while listening with half an ear to James’s running commentary about everything and anything they came across. For her part, Grace remained silent, riding just far enough ahead of him to avoid making conversation.
Not that it would have been possible to be heard above James’s cheerful chattering. It took several miles, but eventually the talking gradually lessened until it finally ceased altogether. He was quiet for so long, Ewan wondered if the lad was feeling ill. No sooner had the thought entered Ewan’s mind when James’s head lulled to one side.
“He’s fallen asleep,” Grace declared.
“Must have been from all that talking,” Ewan replied with a smile. “I confess, it near wore me out.”
“James likes ye.”
Ewan’s lips twitched. “’Tis good to know that someone does.”
She turned to him, as if curiosity overcame her better sense. “I dinnae dislike ye, sir, I merely prefer not becoming yer wife.”
“Yer brother approves of the match.”
She snorted. A loud, unladylike sound that brought a broader smile to Ewan’s lips.
“Men have a habit of banding together when it benefits them.”
“This marriage would be a boon to ye,” he insisted.
“That’s yer most biased opinion. I humbly beg to differ, though I’ve no doubt ye will take delight in telling me the many reasons that I am wrong.”
“Aye. I could spin ye a yarn about the idyllic life that awaits ye. But I believe it’s better if I tell ye the truth.”
Eyes wary, she cocked her head. Pleased he had caught her attention, Ewan spoke from his heart. “The land I’ve been granted by the king is harsh and rugged, but I swear ye’ll not find a more beautiful place in all of Scotland. I’ll not lie to ye; it’s not nearly as grand as the McKenna Castle, nor will it ever be. There’s still work to be done on the keep and rebuilding needed in the village.”
“’Tis.” Ewan smiled. He was not offended by the irony in her voice, having anticipated her determination to find fault no matter what he told her. “The villagers are good honest folk, with a proud Highland spirit and the backbone to survive. I know they’ll quickly grow to respect and adore ye.”
“I’ve no burning need to be placed on a pedestal by anyone.”
“Not even by me?”
“Especially not by ye.”
“Ah, lass, ye dinnae know—”
“Aunt Grace, look!” Malcolm shouted. “There’s at least five rabbits running across the meadow. Can we set a trap fer them?”
Malcolm’s shouting startled James awake. He sat up abruptly, the motion startling Ewan’s horse. Instinctively he tightened his grip on the child, keeping him from taking a tumble.
“I want to see the rabbits,” James yelled, rubbing his eyes with his closed fists.
“They’ve run to ground in the underbrush,” Ewan explained.
“But they’ll come out again,” Malcolm insisted. “Then we can catch them.”
“I like rabbit stew.” James yawned loudly as he stretched his arm skyward. “So does Aunt Grace.”