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The wind had turned cold in Eireann, forcing Brianna MacEgan inside the walls of her beehive-shaped stone hut. The fire had gone out, but she hadn't built another yet. The chill within these walls matched the feelings of her heart. At any moment, she expected the door to open, with Murtagh sweeping inside to steal a kiss. But he wouldn't. He'd been killed in a raid by a Lochlannach warrior of Gall Tir.
In her nightmares, she saw the frozen expression of shock on Murtagh's face when the spear took his life. A cry of anguish had ripped from her throat as she'd rushed to his side, heedless of danger. Never in her life would she forget the cold expression of the Viking who had killed him. In a fraction of a second, he'd ended her world.
A part of her lay buried beneath the earth at his side. Worse, she'd never conceived a child during the marriage. There would be no son with Murtagh's eyes, no daughter with his smile. The empty longing for a child ached within her, but she couldn't imagine another man taking his place.
The walls seemed to close in on her, the grief shrouding her. Though her father had pleaded with her to return to Rionallis, her childhood home, she couldn't bring herself to leave Laochre. All of her best memories were here, in this home. Inside this space, she could feel Murtagh's presence, like a ghost haunting her. And though she knew it was time to let go of the past, she wasn't ready.
A knock sounded at the door, and without waiting for an answer, her cousin Rhiannon came bursting inside. Her long brown hair was twisted into braids in a crown across her forehead, while the rest fell to her waist. 'I've been looking for you everywhere. The guards saw riders approaching. Liam has returned and he has a woman with him!'
'He's back from the Crusade?' Brianna stood up, rubbing her arms against the cold. Their cousin had gone to the Holy Land, against his father's orders. The king had been furious to learn of it, but he'd allowed his son to stay provided that he remained in the service of King Richard the Lionheart. 'Why do you think he brought a woman?'
Rhiannon lifted her shoulders. 'Possibly to marry her. There are wagons behind them, and more riders.' Her cousin's voice was filled with excitement at the prospect of visitors. 'I might find a husband. Pray God, there's someone handsome among them.'
The fervent prayer wasn't entirely in jest. Rhiannon's father believed there was no man alive good enough for his daughter. He'd forbidden any of their tribe to even look at her, much less ask her to marry.
'And if you do meet a handsome stranger?' she prompted.
Rhiannon sent her a secret smile. 'I won't be telling my father about him, you can be certain of that.' She rubbed her shoulders against the cold. 'Come, and let's greet Liam.'
'Go on without me,' Brianna urged. 'I'll follow in a few moments.' No doubt if Liam was getting married, there would be feasting and celebrations for days. The very thought of making merry was foreign to her, like a long-forgotten dream.
Her cousin's face dimmed. 'You've been hiding away for weeks. If I leave you alone, you won't come.'
'I'm sorry.' The loneliness was so unbearable, she didn't know how to force herself out of her melancholy. 'It's just that today was difficult for me.'
'I'll stand outside the door and wait for you,' Rhiannon warned. 'And you wouldn't want your best friend to die of cold, would you?'
Beneath the teasing, Brianna heard the true concern. Her cousin was only trying to help, to draw her away from the sorrow. Perhaps Rhiannon was right. A distraction might take her mind away from her grief.
Brianna reached for her husband's cloak and drew it around her shoulders. It was too large to fit, but at least she could hold a part of Murtagh to her. 'All right, I'll come.' Before she pulled the door shut behind her, her gaze fixed upon the spear standing in the corner. The tip gleamed in the dim light, the edge honed until it would slice through any man's flesh.
She was torn between destroying the weapon that had claimed Murtagh's life r using it for vengeance.
Fifteen years, he'd dreamed of this moment. At last, to set foot upon foreign shores and visit the places he'd longed to go. Arturo de Manzano cast a glimpse back at the ship that had brought him from Navarre, and anticipation quickened his pace. All his life, he'd wanted to taste adventure, and he intended to savour every last moment. Even if it was freezing and beginning to rain.
He rode behind his sister Adriana and her betrothed husband, Liam MacEgan. MacEgan had claimed to be an Irish prince, but Arturo would withhold his approval of the marriage until he witnessed the man's rank for himself. Though they were the same age, Liam appeared far older. He wouldn't speak of the horrors he'd witnessed while on Crusade, nor would Adriana. Both of them seemed grateful to be upon peaceful shores, far away from Saracen enemies.
Behind him, servants unloaded the ship filled with his sister's dowry goods. Adriana remained at MacEgan's side, her gaze fixed upon her betrothed husband, as if drawing strength from him. Her eyes were shadowed with sleeplessness, but what concerned Arturo most was the absence of joy in her face. A bride ought to be smiling with happiness, excited about her forthcoming wedding day. But Adriana appeared troubled.
Arturo drew his horse on her opposite side. 'You look tired.'
'It's been a long journey,' she admitted. 'I'm glad to be on land again. As is Liam.'
Liam grimaced, taking a deep breath. 'Had I known that going on Crusade would mean so many months at sea, I doubt I would have gone.' He reached for Adriana's hand. 'But then, I wouldn't have met you.'
Though she ventured a smile, Arturo saw the emptiness within it. 'She shouldn't have left Navarre.' Adriana had been changed by the Crusade. He could see the shadow weighing upon her, though she would not admit it. She'd shrugged away his questions, claiming it was only exhaustion. But Arturo suspected there was more to the story than that.
'It was an honour,' his sister countered. 'The queen needed a lady-in-waiting who could guard her.' Sending Arturo a sidelong glance, she added, 'And my brothers did well enough, teaching me to defend myself.'
'A battlefield is no place for a woman,' Arturo insisted.
'Which was why we left,' Adriana finished. With a warning glance, she silently asked him to abandon the subject.
'Adriana is braver than most women,' Liam said softly. With a wry smile, he added, 'She'll have to be, to survive the ordeal of meeting my family.'
Arturo wasn't certain what MacEgan was implying by that. 'Do they know of the marriage?'
He shook his head. 'I intend to surprise them.'
Adriana eyed her intended husband with wariness. 'And what if your father has arranged another bride in your absence?'
Liam squeezed her hand. 'You are the only one I intend to marry. And I have no doubt they will come to love you.'
She tried to smile, but worry lurked within her dark brown eyes. Arturo hung behind them, watching the couple as they rode toward a vast limestone castle. Adriana had been his friend and ally while they'd grown up together. It was she who had dismissed the potential brides their mother had brought before him, revealing the greed or faithlessness she'd discovered. And it was she who had introduced him to Cristina, the woman he'd been married to for years, before she'd died three summers ago.
The loneliness was starting to abrade his mood. It wasn't simply the desire to visit new places or to experience a culture different from his own. It was the deep need to fill up the empty spaces within his life. He wanted to feel the arms of a child's embrace during the day and a wife to curl up beside him at night. The time had come to find a new woman to bring back with him to Navarre. Perhaps an Irish one, if she was willing.
He saw love on his sister's face when she looked at Liam, despite the worry. They would find their happiness, once she adjusted to her new home. And he envied them.
They continued riding toward Laochre Castle, and the air was much cooler than his native Navarre. Arturo was accustomed to sun and mountains, while this land had the greenest hills he'd ever seen. A large stone wall surrounded the fortress, and it rivalled the holdings of their own father. It reassured him that this marriage would be a strong one, and he signalled to one of the servants to join him.
'My lord.' The man bowed, waiting for his orders.
'Send word back to the Vicomte de Manzano that he and my mother should make arrangements to travel here for the wedding.' He'd wanted to confirm that MacEgan was telling the truth about his land and holdings, before they made the journey. His mother would want to be here, and surely Adriana would be grateful for their parents' presence.
After the servant departed to do his bidding, Arturo caught up to his sister and her husband-to-be. They had already entered the gates, and from the small crowd gathering, they were fascinated by her.
His sister paled at the sight of them. Arturo brought his horse up behind her and spoke quietly in Spanish. 'Don't faint, Adriana.'
'There are so many of them,' she responded back. 'And they're all talking about me.'
''St. But likely they are enchanted by you.'
'Will you not ride beside me?' she pleaded. Liam was speaking to the people in a foreign tongue, murmuring his translation to Adriana in the Norman language.
In a teasing voice Arturo refused, saying, 'I'll stay behind, to cut off your escape.' No doubt his sister was feeling lost amid all the people. He drew closer, giving her his support in the best way he could. While Liam was embraced by family and friends, the smile on Adriana's face grew strained.
He studied the crowd of people, his gaze passing over each of them, until his attention was drawn to another woman standing back from the others. She was dressed in an unadorned gown the colour of muddy water, while her hair was hidden beneath a darker mantle. A softness moved over her face when she saw Liam, but it was immediately shadowed by sadness.
She seemed reluctant to greet them, but when another woman took her hand, the two of them moved past the crowd toward Liam. Despite the mantle cloaking her features, he recognised the fragile beauty of her. After she greeted Liam, speaking quietly in Irish, she retreated from the crowd.
Arturo dismounted, giving his horse over to the stable master. When he returned to Liam's side, he asked, 'Who was that woman?'
'One of my cousins,' the Irishman answered. 'Her name is Brianna.' With a warning look, he added, 'And she's married, my friend.'
'Widowed,' another woman interrupted, switching from the Irish language into the Norman tongue. She embraced Liam, adding, 'Brianna's husband was killed after you left on Crusade.'
That explained the sadness. Arturo knew, well enough, what it was to endure the days ahead, pretending as if the grief weren't there. Even now, there were times when he wished he could speak with Cristina again, hearing her soft laugh. As he watched the woman slipping away, he sympathised with her fate.
Moments later, the king and queen of Laochre came forward. Queen Isabel threw herself at Liam, openly weeping tears of joy as she framed her son's face with her hands. 'Praise the saints, you're home.' She gripped him tightly and then scolded, 'When you left us, have you any idea how I worried about you? I'm so glad you're safe.'
'You're crushing him, Isabel,' the king said gently, pulling her back. But he embraced his son as well before turning to Adriana. 'I am Patrick MacEgan, King of Laochre.'
His sister managed a curtsy and Liam drew her forward. 'Father, this is Adriana de Manzano, the woman I intend to marry. And her brother Arturo de Manzano.'
At the mention of a wedding, the queen sent her a blinding smile and embraced Adriana. 'I bid you welcome.' Moments later, she began chattering so fast, Arturo wondered if Adriana would understand a word of it. But she walked alongside Isabel, and he supposed the queen would take good care of her.
It was clear that the king wanted to speak to his son alone, so Arturo offered to oversee the wagons. As he supervised them, bringing them into the inner bailey, his gaze returned to the hooded woman.
Brianna held herself apart from the others, and when the drizzling rain shifted into snow, she drew her mantle tighter around her. To his surprise, she caught him watching her and walked forward until she stood before him. At first, she spoke Irish, but when he shook his head, not understanding, she switched into the Norman language.
'Why do you stare at me?'
Her direct manner caught him off guard. Answering honestly, he said, 'Why do you think a man stares at a woman?'
She lifted her chin and met his eyes boldly. 'Find another woman for your attentions, Spaniard. I am not the one for you.'
A gust of wind caught at her hood, and it slipped away from her hair. It was nearly as dark as his own, and it contrasted sharply against her fair skin, making her green eyes stand out. Her features were exotic to him, beautiful in a way he'd never seen before.
'We have more in common than you know.' He lifted her hood back to cover her hair, while the snow dusted both of them. He was referring to her loss, but she remained motionless until his hands moved away.
'Turn your eyes elsewhere, Spaniard,' she whispered. He recognised the edge of grief beneath her words. If she had lost her husband, then likely she would find his interest offensive.
'I know your pain,' he said softly. 'The grief never leaves you. But time dulls it, eventually.'
He gave a slight bow, and turned back to join the others. He didn't have to turn, to know that she was now watching him.