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Alaric McCabe looked out over the expanse of McCabe land and grappled with the indecision plaguing him. He breathed in the chilly air and looked skyward. It wouldn’t snow this day. But soon. Autumn had settled over the highlands. Colder air and shorter days had pushed in.
After so many years of struggling to eke out an existence, to rebuild their clan, his brother Ewan had made great strides in restoring the McCabes to their former glory. This winter, their clan wouldn’t go hungry. Their children wouldn’t go without proper clothing.
Now it was time for Alaric to do his part for his clan. In a short time, he would travel to the McDonald holding where he would formally ask for Rionna McDonald’s hand in marriage.
It was pure ceremony. The agreement had been struck weeks earlier. Now the aging laird wanted Alaric to spend time among the McDonalds, a clan that would one day become Alaric’s when he married McDonald’s daughter and only heir.
Even now the courtyard was alive with activity as a contingent of McCabe soldiers readied to make the journey with Alaric.
Ewan, Alaric’s older brother and laird of the McCabe clan, had wanted to send his most trusted men to accompany Alaric on his journey, but Alaric refused. There was still danger to Ewan’s wife, Mairin, who was heavily pregnant with Ewan’s child.
As long as Duncan Cameron was alive, he posed a threat to the McCabes. He coveted what was Ewan’s—Ewan’s wife and Ewan’s eventual control of Neamh Álainn, a legacy brought through his marriage to Mairin, the daughter of the former king of Scotland.
And now because of the tenuous peace in the highlands and the threat Duncan Cameron posed not only to the neighboring clans, but to King David’s throne, Alaric agreed to the marriage that would cement an alliance between the McCabes and the only clan whose lands rested between Neamh Álainn and McCabe land.
It was a good match. Rionna McDonald was fair to look upon, even if she was an odd lass who preferred the dress and duties of a man over those of a woman. And Alaric would have what he’d never have if he remained under Ewan: his own clan to lead. His own lands. His heir inheriting the mantle of leadership.
So why wasn’t he more eager to mount his horse and ride toward his destiny?
He turned when he heard a sound to his left. Mairin McCabe was hurrying up the hillside, or at least attempting to hurry, and Cormac, her assigned guard for the day looked exasperated as he followed in her wake. Her shawl was wrapped tightly around her, and her lips trembled with the cold.
Alaric held out his hand, and she gripped it, leaning toward him as she sought to catch her breath.
“You shouldn’t be up here, lass,” Alaric reproached. “You’re going to freeze to death.”
“Nay, she shouldn’t,” Cormac agreed. “If our laird finds out, he’ll be angry.”
Mairin rolled her eyes and then looked anxiously up at Alaric. “Do you have everything you require for your journey?”
Alaric smiled. “Aye, I do. Gertie has packed enough food for a journey twice as long.”
She alternated squeezing and patting Alaric’s hand, her eyes troubled as she rubbed her burgeoning belly with her other hand. He pulled her closer so she’d have the warmth of his body.
“Should you perchance wait another day? It’s near to noon already. Maybe you should wait and leave early on the morrow.”
Alaric stifled his grin. Mairin wasn’t happy with his leaving. She was quite used to having her clan right where she wanted them. On McCabe land. And now that Alaric was set to leave, she’d become increasingly more vocal in her worry and her dissatisfaction.
“I won’t be gone overlong, Mairin,” he said gently. “A few weeks at most. Then I’ll return for a time before the marriage takes place and I reside permanently at McDonald keep.”
Her lips turned down into an unhappy frown at the reminder that Alaric would leave the McCabes and, for all practical purposes, become a McDonald.
“Stop frowning, lass. It isn’t good for the babe. Neither is you being out here in the cold.”
She sighed and threw her arms around him. He took a step back and exchanged amused glances with Cormac over her head. The lass was even more emotional now that she was swollen with child, and the members of her clan were becoming increasingly more familiar with her spontaneous bursts of affection.
“I shall miss you, Alaric. I know Ewan will as well. He says nothing, but he’s quieter now.”
“I’ll miss you, too,” Alaric said solemnly. “Rest assured, I’ll be here when you deliver the newest McCabe.”
At that, her face lit up and she took a step back and reached up to pat him on the cheek.
“Be good to Rionna, Alaric. I know you and Ewan feel she needs a firmer hand, but in truth, I think what she most needs is love and acceptance.”
Alaric fidgeted, appalled that she’d want to discuss matters of love with him. For God’s sake.
She laughed. “All right. I can see I’ve made you uncomfortable. But heed my words.”
“My lady, the laird has spotted you and he doesn’t look pleased,” Cormac said.
Alaric turned to see Ewan standing in the courtyard, arms crossed over his chest and a scowl etched onto his face.
“Come along, Mairin,” Alaric said as he tucked her hand underneath his arm. “I better return you to my brother before he comes after you.”
Mairin grumbled under her breath, but she allowed Alaric to escort her down the hillside.
When they reached the courtyard, Ewan leveled a glare at his wife but turned his attention to Alaric. “Do you have all you need?”
Caelen, the youngest McCabe brother, came to stand at Ewan’s side. “Are you sure you don’t want me to accompany you?”
“You’re needed here,” Alaric said. “More so as Mairin’s time draws nigh. Winter snows will be upon us soon. It would be just like Duncan to mount an attack when he thinks we least expect it.”
Mairin shivered at Alaric’s side again, and he turned to her. “Give me a hug, sister, and then go back into the keep before you catch your death of cold. My men are ready, and I won’t have you crying all over us as we try to leave.”
As expected, Mairin scowled but once again threw her arms around Alaric and squeezed tight.
“God be with you,” she whispered.
Alaric rubbed an affectionate hand over her hair and then pushed her in the direction of the keep. Ewan reinforced Alaric’s dictate with a ferocious scowl of his own.
Mairin stuck her tongue out and then turned away, Cormac following her toward the steps of the keep.
“If you have need of me, send word,” Ewan said. “I’ll come immediately.”
Alaric gripped Ewan’s arm and the two brothers stared at each other for a long moment before Alaric released him. Caelen pounded Alaric on the back as Alaric went to mount his horse.
“This is a good thing for you,” Caelen said sincerely once Alaric was astride his horse.
Alaric stared down at his brother and felt the first stirring of satisfaction. “Aye, it is.”
He took a deep breath as his hands tightened on the reins. His lands. His clan. He’d be laird. Aye, this was a good thing.
Alaric and a dozen of the McCabe soldiers rode at a steady pace throughout the day. Since they’d gained a late start, what would normally be a day’s ride would now require them to arrive on McDonald’s land the next morning.
Knowing this, Alaric didn’t press, and actually halted his men to make camp just after dusk. They built only one fire and kept the blaze low so it didn’t illuminate a wide area.
After they’d eaten the food that Gertie had prepared for the journey, Alaric divided his men into two groups and told the first of the six men to take the first watch.
They stationed themselves around the encampment, providing protection for the remaining six to bed down for a few hours’ rest.
Though Alaric was scheduled for the second watch, he couldn’t sleep. He lay awake on the hard ground, staring up at the star-filled sky. It was a clear night and cold. The winds were picking up from the north, heralding a coming change in the weather.
Married. To Rionna McDonald. He tried hard but could barely conjure an image of the lass. All he could remember was her vibrant golden hair. She was quiet, which he supposed was a good trait for a woman to have, although Mairin was hardly a quiet or particularly obedient wife. And yet he found her endearing, and he knew that Ewan wouldn’t change a single thing about her.
But then Mairin was all a woman should be. Soft and sweet, and Rionna was mannish in both dress and manner. She wasn’t an unattractive lass, which made it puzzling that she would indulge in activities completely unsuitable for a lady.
It was something he’d have to address immediately.
A slight disturbance of the air was the only warning he had before he lunged to the side. A sword caught his side, slicing through clothing and flesh.
Pain seared through his body, but he pushed it aside as he grabbed his sword and bolted to his feet. His men came alive and the night air swelled with the sounds of battle.
Alaric fought two men, the clang of swords blistering his ears. His hands vibrated from the repeated blows as he parried and thrust.
He was backed toward the perimeter set by his men and nearly tripped over one of the men he’d posted as guard. An arrow protruded from his chest, a testimony to how stealthily the ambush had been set.
They were sorely outnumbered, and although Alaric would pit the McCabe soldiers against anyone, anytime, and be assured of the outcome, his only choice was to call a retreat lest they all be slaughtered. There was simply no way to win against six-to-one odds.
From the Paperback edition.