Authors: Bride of a Scottish Warrior
“If only it were so simple.” Ewan grimaced. “I’ve discovered that many a good man looks down his nose at someone of my birth.”
“Yer father was an earl.”
“Aye. An earl who refused to marry my mother.”
Brian tipped back his tankard and finished it. Wiping his sleeve across his mouth, he broke into a friendly grin. “Do ye have any special requirements fer yer bride?”
Ewan shrugged. “I’d like to find a lady of good birth, young enough to bear children, mature enough to have some experience of life, who possesses a sizable dowry and a forgiving nature. Mayhap, do any women of yer acquaintance spring to mind?”
“Nay.” Brian rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Though there is my sister, Grace. As I think about it, I realize that she fulfills all yer wants.”
Ewan stared at his friend. “Grace? Isn’t she married to Alastair Ferguson?”
“She’s a widow. Alastair died last winter.”
“I dinnae know. My sympathies.”
Brian nodded. “He was a good man and a fine warrior, but his passing has left Grace adrift in the world, without a proper home of her own.”
“There must be many eligible men who are interested in being tied to her.”
Brian stared into his tankard and grunted. “Dinnae ye mean being tied to me and the McKenna Clan?”
“Aye, well, that too.”
“There’s been interest. A few offers as well.”
“Yet ye’ve refused them?” Ewan folded his hands and waited. There had to be more, something Brian wasn’t telling him. He shuffled through his mind for anything he could recall about Grace, yet found nothing.
Brian never spoke of her and Ewan had spent no significant time in the company of Alastair Ferguson during the king’s campaigns for Scottish independence. There had been no talk of his wife, no gossip surrounding her person or actions. Yet clearly something was wrong with the lass or Brian wouldn’t be suggesting this alliance.
Brian regarded him with shrewd eyes. “Steady, Ewan. By all rights I should be insulted by that look ye’re casting my way.”
Ewan frowned uneasily. “I’ve been turned away by each and every family I’ve approached fer a bride and those were all minor clans. Naturally I’m a bit suspicious of an offer from ye.”
Brian leaned forward, his expression serious. “I cannae lie to ye, my friend. It willnae be easy to win my sister’s hand.”
Ewan bit back an oath.
I knew it!
Still, there was good reason to stay calm and hear the rest. An alliance with a clan as important and powerful as the McKenna’s was far more than he had dared to hope. “I’ve dealt with prickly females before and managed them well. I’m sure I can do the same with Grace.”
“There’s nothing prickly about Grace,” Brian insisted. “She’s the very model of female decorum, refinement, and obedience.”
“Are ye sure she’s really yer kin?” Ewan joked.
Brian grinned. “Aye, though she’s as different from the rest of the McKennas as chalk to cheese.”
Ewan leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. His patience for riddles was quickly fading. Thankfully, Brian was a forthright man who appreciated honesty.
“So, then, what’s wrong with her?” Ewan asked bluntly.
The McKenna’s features darkened like a thundercloud, but he somehow managed to hold on to his temper. “In honor of our friendship I’m going to pretend I never heard that insult.”
Ewan opened his mouth to apologize, but Brian glared forcefully, sending a clear message. Ewan shut his mouth and waited.
“Grace was promised to the church as a babe. She was raised there and would have taken the veil had I not needed her so desperately,” Brian explained.
“Fer an alliance with the Fergusons?”
“Aye. ’Twas a good match and not an unhappy marriage.” Brian sighed. “I believe she was content.” He shook his head vigorously, as though trying to clear it, then spoke in a deliberate tone. “She came to live with us shortly after Alastair died. Fer the first time in my life, I’ve gotten to know my sister. She’s a wise, calm female, sweet and loving, with a fine sense of humor. Any man would be proud to have her fer his wife and mother of his bairns.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Brian hung his head sheepishly, then picked up a large wedge of hard cheese and popped it into his mouth. “Aileen has become very fond of Grace, as have I. Above all else, we desire her happiness.”
“A fine sentiment.”
“’Tis. Yet Grace has a very different idea of what will bring her joy and peace.”
“She’s acting rebellious?” Ewan asked, having difficulty believing anyone, least of all a female relation, would be able to effectively deny Brian McKenna.
“Rebellion is not a part of Grace’s nature.”
“Then she’ll willingly do as ye command?”
Brian cleared his throat. “Well, the trouble is, I cannae exactly command Grace to do what I want.”
The McKenna shifted in his seat, looking more uncomfortable than Ewan had ever seen him. “I promised Aileen I’d not force Grace into an unwanted marriage. The choice must be left to Grace as to which path she will follow.”
Ewan felt his jaw drop open. ’Twas madness to leave a woman solely in charge of her fate. It went against human nature, the laws of God and man. Women needed to be cared for, guided, protected. That McKenna, one of the most traditional, duty-bound men he knew, would allow such a travesty was nothing less than shocking.
“Wipe that smirk right off yer face, Ewan, before I do it fer ye,” Brian reprimanded. “God’s teeth, I’ve lived with her long enough to know there’s hell to be paid when Aileen is crossed, and I’m not about to stick my neck out and let my head be chopped off. And it’s always more difficult when she’s carrying a babe. At times her moods can be downright terrifying.”
Ewan spared a slight smile for his friend. “Is the man Grace has decided she wants to marry someone ye find unsuitable?”
“She does not want to remarry. She speaks of returning to the convent where she was raised and living out the rest of her days inside those walls.” Brian’s jaw bulged as his body tensed with emotion. “But Grace is not a woman meant to be locked away. She deserves more. Having a family to fill her day, children of her own, a life that revolves around people and happiness, not quiet and prayers.”
“And ye think I can give her that life?” Ewan asked, humbled, as well as slightly unnerved, by the challenge.
“I think ye’re the only one I’m willing to let try.”
Grace had just gotten the children settled on their pallets when Edna entered the chamber. “Sir Brian is asking fer ye in the great hall, milady.”
“Och, but she cannae leave now! Aunt Grace is going to tell us a story,” Malcolm exclaimed.
“About knights and maidens,” Katherine piped up.
“And dragons,” James added, his eyes wide with excitement.
“If I’m summoned, then I must go,” Grace said regretfully, though she was not surprised by the request. She’d much rather stay with the children than greet whoever had come to see her brother, but duty demanded she obey.
“Do ye know the story Aunt Grace was going to tell us, Edna?” Malcolm asked hopefully.
“I dinnae,” Edna confessed. “But I do know a tale of goblins and fairies.”
“Is it scary?” Malcolm asked.
“Aye, but it all turns out right in the end. Would ye like to hear it?”
Promptly forgetting their aunt, the children turned their complete attention to Edna. As she slipped out the door, Grace heard her maid telling the children to gather close. Grace smiled, knowing that Edna’s story would likely be equal parts noble and gruesome. Grace would certainly have to be far more imaginative the next time she told the children a tale in order to compete with Edna’s epic adventure and keep the wee one’s attention.
Grace arrived at the hall, but halted the moment she saw a young page struggling to carry in a laden tray that was almost twice his size.
“Let me help, Connor,” she said, reaching for the full pitcher of ale before it tumbled to the floor.
“Oh, thank ye, milady.” Connor grinned, straightened the now-lighter tray, and hurried to the dais. Grace followed slowly, squinting at the two seated men. One was her brother—the other unknown to her. Yet she knew by the tingling feeling climbing up her spine that the stranger was watching her.
She ventured closer, keeping her eyes trained on the edge of the table. When she reached the dais she had no choice but to look up. Her brother’s scowl immediately turned to an overly bright grin. Grace’s stomach tightened with suspicion.
“Grace, there’s someone I’d like ye to meet,” Brian bellowed. “Sir Ewan Gilroy has come to pay us a visit.”
Dressed in a well-made green tunic and leather trews, Brian’s guest sat with one ankle crossed casually over the other knee, as relaxed as he might have been in his own hall. He came to his feet and stepped close when they were introduced, an imposing warrior of solid muscle and brawn.
With slightly trembling hands, Grace placed the pitcher of ale on the table. Standing so close meant she had to tip her head back to meet Sir Ewan’s gaze. He was tall and broad-shouldered, a dark-haired man, with piercing blue eyes, a wide mouth, and a square jaw.
“’Tis an honor to meet such a fair and lovely lady.”
Uncertain how to respond to such a flirtatious compliment, Grace simply curtsied. She supposed Sir Ewan was trying to be polite, but then she noticed that he was staring at her intently, in a way that no man ever had.
It made her nervous.
Grace smoothed a hand over the top of her wrinkled skirt and wondered what he saw when he looked at her. Nothing extraordinary, to be sure. Her petite frame lent itself to a younger appearance, but her face possessed the maturity of her years. Her auburn hair, said by many to be her best feature, was plaited and pinned to her head, and covered with a veil. Her gown was plain, serviceable, and loose-fitting, just as she preferred.
Yet for some unexplained reason, Sir Ewan seemed to find her fascinating. His gaze drifted from her face to her breasts to her hips to her feet. Grace’s breath quickened and her heart thumped wildly against her rib cage.
’Tis a delayed reaction,
she told herself sternly.
I’m merely relieved it’s not Roderick, come to make trouble.
She forced herself to relax. She was perfectly safe, here in McKenna hall, with her brother at her side. The realization bolstered her courage. She took a step closer.
The spicy, masculine scent of leather surrounded her. Grace inhaled slowly, allowing it to linger in her nostrils. It was pleasant, oddly comforting, and unsettling all in the same moment.
She could tell by the rising heat in her cheeks that her face was flushed. Embarrassed by this reaction, she shifted on her feet, feeling utterly foolish for having such a girlish reaction to a handsome stranger.
And then Sir Ewan did the most amazing thing. He smiled. If she thought him handsome before, he was heart-stopping now. That smile brought a twinkle of mischief to his eyes and revealed a dimple in his unshaven cheek. For just a moment, receiving that mesmerizing smile did funny things to her stomach and knees, but Grace soon pulled herself back to reality.
Ewan Gilroy possessed the dangerous, manly good looks that left women stumbling on their feet. Probably since he was old enough to shave off his whiskers. Oh, yes, there was no doubt that Sir Ewan was the kind of man who delighted in tempting women with his handsome face and promising smile, but she was immune.
Or so she told herself.
“What brings ye to the Highlands, Sir Ewan?”
“A quest, milady. That might have just come to a very satisfactory end.” He took a step closer and she swore she could see the remnants of his smile lurking in his eyes. “That is, if ye look kindly upon me.”
“Aye. Shall I tell ye the details?”
Grace shivered. His voice was deep and rich, an intoxicating sound she could listen to for hours. A vision of herself sitting at his feet, her head resting on his knee as he regaled her with tales, invaded her mind.
Shaking herself out of that ridiculous stupor, Grace looked beyond Sir Ewan to her brother. “How long will yer friend be visiting with us?”
Her brother’s eyes narrowed with caution. He paused, almost as if weighing the words in his mind before speaking. “Ewan has journeyed here fer more than a visit.”
“Oh?” Grace struggled to remain calm, but she felt her distress start to bubble to the surface.
“Aye. A most important reason has brought him to us.” Brian cleared his throat loudly. “Ewan is in search of a bride. And I’ve suggested that ye would do nicely.”
Ewan could have sworn Lady Grace did not move an inch, yet somehow she conveyed both shock, disdain, and disapproval. Of him? Or the suggestion of their marriage? Or perhaps ’twas both?
The reaction bothered him more than he cared to admit. He hadn’t been dismissed so quickly and thoroughly by a female since he was a lad. True, all his offers of marriage had been rejected these past few weeks. But it had been the male leaders of the clans saying nay to him, not the women. ’Twas one of the few things that salvaged Ewan’s pride in this whole sordid mess, knowing he could have charmed the women, if given the chance.
He studied Lady Grace’s face. She was pretty enough, but not an exceptional beauty. She was delicate and petite, with a fair complexion and pouty lips. Her eyes were gray, like her brother’s, with an intelligent and quiet composure lurking in their depths.
Lady Grace was nothing like the usual woman who caught his eye, for he generally preferred tall, curvy brunettes. Yet why did his heart beat so much faster when he gazed at her?
Ewan continued his inspection. Though of good quality, her gown was simple and loose. In his experience, noblewomen tried to make themselves as attractive as possible, dressing in soft wools and vibrant colors. Yet Lady Grace wore a plain gown of rough cloth, the dull gray fabric washing out any hint of color from her face, the loose folds hiding her female curves.
Ewan offered her an encouraging smile. She appeared startled. Her eyes traveled over him, from the top of his head to the tips of his soft leather boots. He found himself squaring his shoulders and puffing out his chest. The gesture did not go unnoticed; Lady Grace’s eyes narrowed shrewdly and her mouth tugged into a disapproving line.