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Lairig Dubh, ScotlandAD 1375
'Look! Look! There he is.'
The excited whisper drew Isobel's attention. Her friend Cora rarely took notice of the opposite sex, so this was something different, something special. She turned to see who her friend was watching.
Athdar MacCallum, brother of the laird's wife Joc-elyn, strode through the yard, heading for the keep. From the decisive way he walked, looking neither right nor left, he had business with the laird and would not be slowed from his task. Still, he was a fine-looking man to gaze upon.
'He is leaving to return home,' she said. At Cora's questioning frown, she nodded. 'My father mentioned it this morn.'
'Will he be here for the evening meal, do you think?' Cora asked, watching her closely for her reply.
Isobel wanted to show her excitement much as Cora did, but she held back. If she showed her interest in Athdar, word would make it back to her father and then trouble would begin. Just mentioning his name usually caused her father to look extremely bothered. And bothered was not something she, or anyone, wanted her father to be.
The half-Norse, half-Scottish natural son of the Earl of Orkney did not suffer fools easily and at some time in the past, before even her birth, Athdar had done something very foolish and her father would never let it go. It mattered not that Athdar had been young and tended towards brash acts. It mattered not that he had suffered for his misjudgement. And it mattered not that the result had brought Jocelyn MacCallum to Lairig Dubh as the laird's wife. All that mattered to her father was that Athdar's character was lacking then and possibly still. Isobel turned away from the path and faced Cora.
'I know not, Cora. I do not keep watch over his comings and goings.'
Though she would if she could.
As Isobel had watched her various cousins being matched and married these last couple of years and as she'd reached what she considered a marriageable age, the only man who had caught her attention was Athdar. Oh, it had nothing to do with his strong, muscled body or his piercing brown eyes or the way his long, brown hair framed the masculine angles of his face. Dabbing at the perspiration on her forehead with the back of her hand, Isobel realised she'd noticed his physical attributes much too much!
There was also the fact that he intrigued her. Always respectful of her, he spoke to her as though she had a mind and did not shy away from her as all the other men did. Someone who would stand up to her father was not a bad thing. He was a fair and competent man, according to the earl. Compassionate, according to his sister.
And Isobel could sense the pervasive sadness that lived within him and it called to something deep within her soulshe needed to be the one who gave him solace. Rather than drive or scare her away from him, it appealed to her. She shivered now as she glanced at him again.
Cora noticed her reaction, for her friend squinted and stared at her face. Then the girl smiled and nodded.
'I think you are not so unaffected as you want me to believe, Isobel.'
'Cora, he is kin through my father,' she offered, hoping Cora would allow the issue to settle. Wiping her damp hands on her gown, she tossed her hair over her shoulders and took her friend's hand. 'Come, we have tasks to see to before dinner, whether Athdar attends or not.'
That had been a near thing. Her friend wisely let the subject drop though the man walked half the yard ahead of them as they also headed for the keep. Her mother was attending Lady Jocelyn in the solar and that gave her the reason to follow him inside. Her heart raced in her chest and she tried to keep the anticipation of speaking to him under control and she might have if someone had not called out his name from behind her. Athdar paused and turned to see who had called out to him. As he did that, his gaze, those intense, brown eyes, fell on her.
Any attempt to continue to behave as though his attention was usual or customary in her life dissolved away when he winked and then smiled at her. She stopped where she stood and tried to remember to breathe. Cora had not been looking so she continued forwards a step or two before realising she'd left Isobel behind. Isobel forced a breath in and out and then glanced back, returning his smile. She was trying to think of something pithy to say to him when Ranald brushed by and stepped between them.
'I am working in the practice yard, Dar,' Ranald called out. 'Come there when ye finish with the laird.'
Isobel watched as Athdar waved to Ranald, nodded his agreement and then turned to enter the keep. Ranald greeted both of them and then went back to the yard. Cora's gaze followed his every step until Isobel cleared her throat to gain her attention. The blush that crept up her friend's cheeks must be similar to the one she could yet feel heating her own. She waved her friend along, not commenting on Ranald's obvious appeal to Cora.
As they entered and walked the corridor to the lady's solar, Isobel decided that she would find a way to watch the two men practice in the yard later. Surely Cora would accompany her on her mission.
Athdar swore under his breath as he walked ahead of the two young women into the dark stone keep to find his brother-by-marriage. He had to meet with Connor and several of his advisors over changes to their plans. As he nodded to those he knew, he cursed himself for his stupidity. Smiling and winking at Isobel? Truly, he was wanting in the head to do such a thing in front of others.
Nay, to do such a thing at all.
Isobel was Rurik's daughter and if Rurik learned of any attention paid by him to her the man would have his head or nether parts! He'd already faced death at Rurik's hands once before and he never intended to do that again, not even for the lovely Isobel.
Damn his eyes, but she was a beauty! He'd watched as she'd grown from gangly girl to this stunning young woman of confidence and intelligence. Her parents had seen her educated as most of those in the MacLeries' immediate families were. And like many of the other girls and women, they had been encouraged to know and speak their minds. Most unusual, he knew, but here in his brother-by-marriage's keep and village it all seemed the norm.
He sought the chamber that Connor used as a workroom and found him there with several others he knew. As they began their discussion, Athdar found his thoughts distracted by a heart-shaped face surrounded by pale blond curls and the blue-green eyes that were ever filled with merriment when they met his. And the full, pink lips that tempted him to madness. His body went along with these thoughts and reacted in surprising manner. Athdar shifted in his chair, gaining Connor's attention.
'Are you well?' Connor asked, offering him a cup of wine.
'I am,' he replied, taking a mouthful of wine to give him a moment to focus his thoughts on the business at hand and not on the lovely and forbidden Isobel. 'About the preparations for winter?'
Try as he might, even as Connor went back to explaining their plans, and his clan's part in them, Athdar thought about Isobel.
And the fruitlessness of any interest he might have in her.
Glancing around the chamber and realising that most of those there were happily married, he felt the heartache pierce through him as it always did.
Happy, he might be, but married he would never be again.
The disasters of his previous marriages and the most recent betrothal had made his decision for himhe would not subject any woman to the dangers of marrying him.
Especially not the lovely Isobel.
The tragedies of his past would haunt his every day and night, but he would not risk someone as precious and vibrant as her to the chance that he was truly cursed.
Some would laugh and call him foolish. People died. Women died, especially in childbirth or such manner. But then they would recall that he'd lost two wives to death, a betrothed to an accident and two possible wives to the fear of all that would befall them if their fathers agreed to matches with him.
So, in spite of any desire he had to find a wife and have a family as these men had, Athdar understood that the fates stood against him. Standing and walking to the window, he listened and replied to Connor from there.
As though his thoughts had conjured her up, Rurik's daughter passed into his view as she walked through the yard in the direction of the practice yards. She and her friend had their heads close together, conspiring no doubt on some feminine matter, as they laughed and glanced at the men practising their fighting skills. He emptied the cup and placed it on the nearby tray.
'I will accept your invitation to stay for a few days, Connor.' He strode towards the door, ignoring any questioning glances. 'I must check with my man about some of the supplies we need.'
'Your sister is in her solar, Dar,' Connor said.
'I will seek her out later.' Lifting the latch on the door, he pulled it open. 'I will return shortly.'
His feet led him outside before he could consider how strange his behaviour was. Something, someone drew him as though a rope connected him with her. When he realised his dangerous actionsdangerous to his own well-being and hershe slowed down and sought Ranald instead.
A good fight might beat this madness out of him. It might make him remember his reasons for being here. And his reasons for avoiding marriage completely.
His plan almost worked, too, until he heard Isobel gasp out his name as he landed face first in the dirt from a well-aimed punch. How was he ever going to ignore her when every fibre of his body and soul wanted to claim her?
'Rurik thinks to marry her elsewhere.'
Connor stepped closer, watching the scene in the yard from abovein his favourite place and standing behind his beloved Jocelyn. He leaned nearer, placing his arms on each side of where she stood, and inhaled the scent of whatever she used to wash her hair. His body grew hard just thinking about her taking a bath naked. Shaking his head, he laughed at the ever-present temptation she presented to him, regardless of their decades-long marriage and age.
'Has he finally realised she is of age to marry?' Jocelyn asked, turning into his arms. 'He has resisted for a long time.'
'Two offers have come in recently. We discussed them at length which forced him to accept that it is time.'
'And you support these matches?' she asked. A hint of somethingsuspicion? sarcasm?entered her voice as she asked.
Connor laughed. 'Is the game on then, wife?' Kissing her, he watched as her eyes lit with mischief. 'So it is, then.'
He released her and looked over the side of the battlements down to the yard. Her brother had left their meeting abruptly and now he fought with one of the younger warriors, Ranald, before a shouting and cheering crowd. Even from this distance, Connor could read the distraction in Dar's fighting style. And, if he was right, he knew the person causing it.
'He notices her.' He felt Jocelyn tense and waited for her to object to his guess. 'Rurik will not be happy.'
'Athdar has sworn not to marry again,' Jocelyn whispered as they watched her brother losing control of the match below. 'He keeps so much pain within himself.'
Connor remained silent then, knowing that it could be telling their own story againthe pain, the refusal to marry, the inability to hope that love could be within their grasp until it was nearly too late. Only the woman before him had saved his soul and his heart from eternal darkness.
'Rurik has hopes she will settle her heart elsewhere, and that's without Dar's name being mentioned.'
'I did not think Rurik one to hold a grudge for so very long,' Jocelyn said, facing him once more and searching his face. 'It was so long ago and Athdar was so young. And it was only an insult, not an attack.'
'You have not involved yourself with Dar's affairs before. Why take up this challenge now?' he asked. He was trying to figure out if this would indeed become their next matchmaking challenge.
'It was not my place, Connor. I had accepted that,' she said, as sadness filled her voice.
'Had?' That was not good.
'I see the longing in his gaze at gatherings. He wants what we have. He wants a wife, bairns. Love. He wants it and yet he fears taking another chance.'
'So mayhap you should leave him to making that decision?' It could not hurt to nudge his beloved in the right direction. 'He is a chief now, with responsibilities. I do not think he would take it well to know you plot about him.' Hoping that was enough to push her away from making this attraction between Dar and Isobel more than that, he added, 'I have to see to things. I will see you at table?'
She smiled, acquiesced even, but he knew in his soul that she would not turn her efforts from a possible match between her brother and Rurik's daughter. And there would be hell to pay on all sides if that happened. He did not have the time to make her see the folly and danger in her choice, but he would see to it later. This night. In their chambers.
'Until then,' she whispered, reaching up on her toes to touch their mouths together.
He watched the seductive sway of her hips as she walked away and realised she'd not denied that she would pursue a match. Outplayed once more by desire for his wife, Connor cursed under his breath and walked away in the other direction. He needed to have a conversation with Rurik.
Or mayhap not.
For, once fired up, the commander of all his troops was formidable even for him. Mayhap this time he would hold back and see how this all played out?
With thoughts of what would await him in his bedchamber tempting him, Connor walked off to find someone to fight. It was a good way to clear his mind and sharpen his wits. And if his wife and the other mothers had decided on a match, he and the other fathers would need their wits about them.
From the smug expression that lay across her lovely face as she turned from him, he knew that even his wits might not win this battle.