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The Kingdom of Fotla, Pictland. Winter 843
The northern wind was bitter, and snow blinded the path ahead as Ewan MacKinnon and his eleven compatriots approached the Pictish royal stronghold of Fotla-eviot. It had been scarcely two weeks since they had left the kingdom to return to their king at Dunadd in Dal Riada, and as the ancient stone walls of the stronghold came into view through the blizzard, an unnatural vise gripped his chest.
He hadn’t expected to be ordered to return to the kingdom. He’d wanted a respite from duty, to spend time in his own stronghold after nine months imposing his king’s will in Pictland. But MacAlpin was determined to stake his claim in Pictland, which meant none of his warriors were free to decide their own fates.
Ross Macintosh, fellow warrior, and longtime friend, appeared by his side. “What ails you, man? It’s not like you to trail behind. Aren’t you looking forward to the undoubted hospitality we’ll receive from the royal house of Fotla?”
There was a grim note in Ross’ voice, despite his attempt at humor. Doubtless he, also, was tired of the interminable diplomatic missions they had undertaken this past year. But a warrior never disobeyed his king.
Even if his king could not be trusted.
He crushed the treacherous thought before it consumed him. There was no evidence to support his dark suspicions against his liege, MacAlpin, and he would never voice them. Not even to Ross, whom he trusted with his life.
“I doubt the Fotla king will welcome us. Our presence merely underscores how little confidence MacAlpin places in the Picts ability to ensure justice is served.”
The last time they’d been in Fotla, an attempt had been made on the life of MacAlpin’s eldest son. Although Constantine lived, with no apparent ill-effects from the arrow, the would-be assassin was still free.
Both MacAlpin and MacAllister were convinced the assassin was a spy from Northumbria. After many years of relative peace, the southern barbarians were once again eyeing their borders with Dal Riada and Pictland. In the spring, they had attempted an incursion which had been swiftly repelled.
Ewan wasn’t alone in thinking it was an exercise to test the strength of the new alliance between Scot and Pict. He could well believe the Northumbrians wanted to destabilize that alliance.
What he didn’t want to believe was that the Picts were in league with them. Yet his king suspected treachery. Their mission was to uncover the truth. And exact justice.
Ross drew closer and nodded towards MacAllister, who was leading the group, his back rigid despite the long hours in the saddle. “MacAllister’s presence concerns me. I can’t help but suspect there is another reason we’ve been ordered back to Fotla. Why else would MacAlpin have his most trusted adviser accompany us?”
Aye, that detail bothered him, too. MacAllister was the king’s man to the very marrow of his bones and experience this last year had shown Ewan that MacAllister’s true intentions were rarely transparent.
Ewan slowed his horse as, from the swirling white, a dozen Pict warriors emerged, clearly intending to accompany them to the stronghold.
There was but one answer. “I’m certain that we shall soon find out.”
It seemed they were not expected to make camp and endure the frigid elements. Instead, after a brief and distinctly chilly reception from the Fotla king’s advisers, they were shown to two bedchambers in the east wing. Even sharing with five other warriors, it was immeasurably preferable to a tent in this foul weather.
Stuart MacGregor grinned as he slung his pack to the floor. “We have been allocated the chamber of delights.”
“Chamber of delights?” Ewan didn’t bother trying to hide the mockery in his voice. “There’ll be no illicit affairs undertaken with noblewomen in here, MacGregor.”
MacGregor shrugged good-naturedly. “Maybe not. But I was referring to our last stay in Fotla. Two beautiful Pictish ladies entertained me in this very chamber. It was an open secret that this was their preferred rendezvous. You can’t tell us you knew nothing about it.”
A couple of the other warriors laughed, and the talk turned bawdy. Ewan swung away and paced the floor to peer through the narrow window. The truth was, he had arranged no illicit assignation with a lady while in Fotla. Not that any of the men would believe him, even if he admitted to such a thing.
Which he never would.
Rourke MacConall came to his side, folded his arms, and glowered across the chamber. The familiar sight of Rourke’s unamused expression lightened Ewan’s mood and he laughed.
“The time at sea has not improved your humor,” he said, and Rourke slung him a sardonic glance.
“My time away hasn’t improved MacGregor’s love for gossip, either.”
Ewan agreed, but he had no wish to discuss MacGregor’s faults. “Our king keeps you busy. You deserve a respite after a year from Dal Riada.” Fuck, what was wrong with him? He had to learn to curb his tongue, but his unremitting distrust of MacAlpin was corroding his good sense.
Rourke cast another glance around the chamber before focusing on Ewan. “MacAlpin was adamant I accompany you to Fotla. I’m sure my father would have preferred me to stay behind.”
Ewan grunted in response. There wasn’t much else he could say. Rourke’s sire was MacAllister, and they had never seen eye to eye. MacAllister had never looked kindly on Rourke’s wild rebelliousness in his youth, as though it might reflect badly on his status with the king.
Although Ewan’s own father had once been a part of the king’s inner circle, unlike Rourke, he’d never had to endure the icy wrath of his sire for his misdeeds. Yet their fathers’ close friendship wasn’t the reason Ewan considered Rourke one of his closest confidants.
It was because their mothers had been dear friends and he and Rourke had grown up together. Even after his mother died, Rourke’s had always welcomed him.
Familiar guilt ate through him, burning like acid. It didn’t appear to matter how many years passed. Her death, and the reason for it, would haunt him until the end of time.
With brutal resolve borne of long practice, he thrust the memories back into the darkest corners of his mind. There, they would fester forever, but dwelling on things that couldn’t be changed did no good at all.
He inhaled a deep breath. The chamber was too crowded. He’d spent long hours in the saddle, and even though the weather was frigid, he needed to clear his head. Stretch his legs.
He grasped Rourke’s shoulder in farewell, before marching from the chamber.
Briana, Princess Euphemia of Fotla, was chilled to the bone and caked in snow. Her mamma would be furious. She glanced at her ladies, as they emerged from the stables, but despite their wind-reddened cheeks and similar state of disarray as herself, their eyes sparkled, and smiles were brighter than they had been for many days.
Her mamma’s anger would be worth the last hour’s freedom of riding in the nearby glen. It had been glorious until the weather had suddenly turned, catching her unawares, and they had made a swift return to the palace through a raging blizzard.
It was a little disconcerting. Usually, she was so attuned to the changes in the weather but this time there had been no ethereal warning from the great goddess to beware. She didn’t want to think it but could not help herself. Had her beloved goddess Bride truly deserted her?
“My lady,” her dear friend, Nairne, said. “Should we have servants bring a canopy to protect you as we return to the palace?”
It was only a short walk to the palace. But Briana knew what Lady Nairne really meant. “I fear the queen will not be appeased by such a concession.” She sighed. It did not matter how much they had all enjoyed their carefree ride. It had been remiss of her to subject her ladies to the frigid winter elements. “Please forgive me for insisting we should take advantage of the break in the weather. I should have known it wouldn’t last.”
“Oh goddess.” Lady Gavina said. “We have been confined within the palace walls for so long, my lady. It was delightful to feel the cold wind on my face once again. And we were in no danger, with our warriors to protect us.”
Briana glanced at the two men who had accompanied them, who were standing in the snow a stone’s throw away and speaking to a third warrior, who had emerged from the other stables across the way. Unaccountably, unease slithered through her, even though she had known each man for years and trusted them with her life.
One of them swung away and marched over to her, where she and her ladies remained in the doorway of the stables.
“Is anything amiss?” she asked him.
“My lady.” He gave a swift bow of his head, a glower etched into his face. “The Scots have arrived.”
She sucked in a sharp breath as her ladies exclaimed with excitement. That explained her disquiet, although their arrival wasn’t unexpected. Mere days ago, a messenger from MacAlpin had arrived at the palace and informed them a contingent of warriors from Dal Riada was on the way.
The slight could not be plainer. The Scots didn’t trust the Picts to ensure justice was served in the matter concerning Constantine, MacAlpin’s son.
“I see. Are they in the great hall?”
She hoped not. Neither she nor her ladies would wish the Scots to witness their disheveled state. It did not quite make sense, but she felt it put them at a disadvantage.
“They were taken to the two chambers in the east wing, my lady.”
“Very well.” She glanced at her ladies. “Doubtless the queen will summon us shortly. We must make haste and make ourselves presentable.” With luck, her mamma would be so preoccupied with the Scots arrival that she’d overlook Briana’s transgression of riding in inclement weather.
They stepped out from the shelter of the stables and hurried across the snowy courtyard as her ladies tried to guess who might have returned to Fotla.
“Do you think it likely the same warriors who came here last month will be among them?” Nairne said.
“It would make sense,” Gavina replied. “Since they are already familiar with the area where Constantine was attacked.”
“I’m certain that even if their upstart king has sent new warriors, they will be as pleasing as their compatriots were,” Lady Eara said.
“Indeed, it appears the Scots are incapable of being anything less than captivating, when they wish to bedazzle us,” Nairne remarked.
Briana didn’t join in the banter although she couldn’t help but agree with her friends’ opinions on the Scots. But no matter how engaging the foreign warriors were, it didn’t blind any of them to the truth.
In the spring, under the guise of forming an alliance against the ever-present threat of the Northumbrians in the south and the Vikings in the north, the Scots had despicably betrayed the Picts. A bloodied massacre in the Scots’ royal stronghold of Dunadd had eradicated Pictish lines of inheritance for Fortriu, the Supreme Kingdom of Pictland, and enabled MacAlpin to claim blood rights to the throne.
Scots might be charming, and political necessity decreed Picts had no choice but to make the most of the current situation, but none of the Scots could be trusted with more than a meaningless flirtation.
One of the guards threw open the doors to the palace and she stepped over the threshold, distractedly flapping her cloak to dislodge the stubborn shards of ice that clung to the wool. Beneath her hood, her wet hair stuck to her face, her gown was damp, and her fingers were numb. The sooner she—
“My lady.” The masculine voice, with its bone-melting Gaelic accent, stopped her dead in her tracks and her heart slammed against her ribs in frantic denial. No. It couldn’t be. Of all the Scots’ warriors who might have witnessed her bedraggled state, why did it have to be Ewan MacKinnon?
Since sinking through the sodden, straw-covered floor was not an option, she stiffened her spine and slowly raised her head. He stood not a spear’s length from her, looking utterly resplendent in his foreign plaid and thick deerskin jacket, and his piercing blue eyes stole whatever remained of her spinning senses.
Goddess, help her. From the moment he had first arrived in Fotla over a month ago, her wits had fled whenever she was in his company. It was infuriating, quite disgraceful, and if she didn’t speak soon her ladies might suspect something was amiss.
And so would MacKinnon.
She inclined her head but feared her windswept condition made a mockery of the regal gesture. “You have returned to us, MacKinnon.”
It was a dreadful greeting, in so many ways she didn’t even want to think about it. She was well versed in the rules of etiquette and political interplay. Why had her usual proficiency in such arts deserted her now?
Because they always do when confronted by this foreign warrior.
“Aye,” MacKinnon said. “We appreciate your king’s hospitality, my lady.”
It had been a great debate between her parents. Her mamma had wanted the Scots to make camp beyond the safety of the ramparts. Briana couldn’t help wishing her mother had won that argument, since then this excruciating encounter would not be taking place.
She offered him a brittle smile. “My king is gracious, indeed.”
Unforgivably, his gaze roved over her, as if he had just noticed her sorry state and heat seared her. This conversation was most unseemly, and no one would fault her if she simply bade him good day and continued on her way.
Except it appeared her feet had frozen to the floor.
“Were you caught in the blizzard?” He sounded doubtful as though ladies of his acquaintance would never do such a foolhardy thing. And although she had regrets about exposing her ladies to the rough storm, it was not MacKinnon’s place to condemn her.
“Horses need exercising, whatever the weather.” Which was true enough, but the royal horses were ensured of adequate exercise, whether she personally rode her mare or not. Irked that MacKinnon clearly believed she was in the wrong, she added, “It would be bleak indeed if we were confined to the palace for almost half a year simply to avoid the possibility of being caught in a snowstorm.”
What was she saying? She might not agree with her mother in some matters, but she would never voice those frustrations with anyone other than, perhaps, her trusted ladies. Yet here she was, sharing one of her secret vexations of living once more under her mamma’s authority to Ewan MacKinnon, of all people.
Why did he gaze at her as if he found her remark a source of fascination? It was most disconcerting.
“That’s true,” he conceded, and he gave a fleeting smile that caused her stomach to churn in nervous disarray. He had never smiled at her the last time he’d been in Fotla. But then, they had barely spoken. In fact, this was the longest conversation they had ever shared. Although good manners required she smile in return, it was beyond her, and he stiffened before taking a half step back. “Forgive me. I shall detain you no longer, my lady.”
And now he was dismissing her. How galling. It was not his place to end this encounter but as she appeared incapable of diplomacy when in his presence, she could scarcely blame him. She remained ramrod straight while he bade her ladies good day and only when the great doors thudded shut behind her, did she exhale a long breath.
How dearly she had hoped MacKinnon would not be in the Scots’ contingent when they returned to Fotla. But he was, and there was nothing she could do about it.
“Do you think the Scots will be invited to the feast this eve?” Lady Gavina asked Lady Nairne, as they made their way across the great hall. The last time the Scots had been in Fotla they had attended feasts and flirted outrageously with all the ladies. The queen had given her tacit approval for illicit assignations. Far better to keep one’s enemy close, and discover their secrets, than not.
“It would be most agreeable if they are.” Nairne threw back her hood and sighed dramatically. “If only Prince Constantine were among them, but I fear he will never return to Fotla.”
Briana forcibly pulled her tangled thoughts from MacKinnon. If she didn’t join in the conversation, her ladies would think something was wrong. “One can scarcely blame him,” she said as they reached the stairs. “Besides, don’t forget why the Scots are here, Nairne. And it’s not to enjoy our company.”
“Indeed, my lady. But they enliven the evenings, do they not? Surely, there will be time for entertainment when they are not hunting the elusive assassin.”
“I do hope so.” There was a dreamy note in Gavina’s voice as they emerged from the stairwell and walked along the corridor. “I long to dance with the incomparable Ewan MacKinnon.”
Briana entered her antechamber. Don’t react. She could not bear it if any of her ladies guessed how even the mention of his name could discompose her so.
“Oh.” Nairne flapped her hand in Gavina’s direction. “You should take care, Gavina. Remember, it was Ewan MacKinnon who quite broke my dear sister Lilas’ heart in the spring. She was inconsolable.”
“That was Ewan?” Disappointment threaded through the question. “I did not realize. I had forgotten the name of the warrior.”
“Indeed,” Nairne said. “I believe he bedded half the ladies at Ce-eviot without a care for poor Lilas’ feelings.”
“Didn’t Lady Lilas say she overheard Ross MacIntosh telling MacKinnon he should forget about a lady from his past?” Eara tapped her chin with her forefinger. “What was her name? No one from Ce-eviot that I can recall.”
“Moreen.” Gavina gave a great sigh. “MacIntosh called her a witch. Doubtless, she is a mysterious lady from his past who quite stole his heart away.”
During the summer, Nairne had received a letter from her sister, who was one of the Queen of Ce’s ladies. Unfortunately, she had fallen utterly for a visiting Scots warrior who did not return her affection.
Nairne had been devastated on her sister’s behalf, and distressed that, due to the upheavals in Pictland, she could not visit Lilas to offer her support.
Briana had sympathized. But when she’d discovered the foreign warrior, whose piercing blue gaze had stolen her breath and rendered her a witless mute, was the same one who had so callously used Lilas, shame had burned through her.
To be sure, she had never intended anything more than a fleeting flirtation with the visiting Scot, in the same way she flirted with his countrymen. He was the enemy of her people and could never be trusted. But that was irrelevant because, somehow, Ewan had managed to truly intrigue her. Regardless of his heritage, how could she find such a man so enchanting? Had she learned nothing from her short-lived, disastrous, marriage?
Ruthlessly, she pushed the slithering memories back into the darkest corners of her mind. She had succumbed once to base lust and the hollow charms of a handsome warrior. But she was no longer a young girl with stars in her eyes that blinded her to reality.
The Scots were here for one reason only. They were not, after all, welcomed guests. Merely an unpleasant reminder of how their upstart king wished to exert his power across Pictland.
And as for MacKinnon, she would protect herself in the only way she knew how.
By keeping him at a frost-tinged distance.
Thankfully, Briana and her ladies had time to dry their hair and change their gowns before she was summoned to the king’s inner sanctum. Her ladies accompanied her, and she wrapped her shawl around her shoulders to protect from the chill of the passageway. As they passed through the great hall, Rohan, the faithful noble who had proved his loyalty to her during her marriage, bowed his head.
“The savages are ensconced in the east wing, my lady,” he murmured, as she paused before him. “Our king is too generous.”
It wasn’t often he told her something she already knew, but she kept that to herself. When it came to her escaping the palace during the winter, Rohan appeared to be in the same mind as the queen, and she had no wish to enlighten him of her illicit ride in the snow if he was unaware.
“I imagine MacAlpin would be displeased if his warriors froze to death in our fields.”
Rohan’s lips twitched with amusement. “Yet we can scarcely be blamed for the winter weather.”
“I’m sure their king would try to, nevertheless.”
“I suspect you’re right.” He smiled at her ladies, before returning his attention to her. “I shall not keep you. Rest assured, I shall endeavor to discover all I can of the savages’ plans.”
She inclined her head and continued through the hall towards her father’s chambers, but Rohan’s words lingered in her mind. What did he mean? The Scots were here to ensure the Picts were doing all they could to find Constantine’s attacker. What whispers had Rohan heard?
And why hadn’t her beloved goddess blessed her with any insight? It had been weeks since she had felt Bride’s divine touch.
Intangible unease coiled around her heart, a phantom fist that made it hard to draw breath. An insidious denial flickered, vague yet implacable.
Has it truly been weeks? Or was there something lurking in the shadowy fissures of her mind that she simply could not quite recall?
Gavina sighed deeply, pulling her sharply back to the present. “My lord Rohan is so dashing, yet he never indulges in more than fleeting flirtation.”
“Alas,” Nairne said, “I have heard he prefers the company of tavern wenches.”
While her ladies whispered of Rohan’s delightful attributes, Briana hid a smile. To be sure, he was handsome, but more than that he had stood by her side in the scandalous aftermath of her marriage, despite his blood connection to her husband. And then he had forsaken his familial ties and transferred his fealty to her, to ensure her continued safety.
Her smile faded and she smothered a sigh as Drest, a high-ranking warrior and close confidant of her brother, Artair, opened the door to her father’s antechamber. Her ladies remained there, with her mother’s entourage, and she entered the inner sanctum alone.
“Briana.” Her father strode across the chamber and took her into his arms. She breathed in deep, and his familiar scent of woodsmoke soothed her soul. How she had missed him, when MacAlpin had held him hostage in Dal Riada after the massacre in the spring. Deep in her heart she had feared she might never see him again, but she wouldn’t be grateful to the upstart king. He had only released her beloved father and Artair last month, so he could discover the whereabouts of her dearest cousin, Mae.
After a long moment, her father released her. “You are aware the Scots have arrived.”
“Another insult to our honor.” Her mother came to stand beside the king. “We are more than capable of investigating this matter ourselves.”
“The trail was cold before the Scots left Fotla earlier this month. But the upstart will be satisfied with nothing less than a blood sacrifice to avenge the attack on his son.”
A dark suspicion unfurled, and she attempted to smother it. Surely, she had misunderstood her father’s words. “You believe they will find a culprit, regardless of his guilt?”
But that wasn’t what she meant, although she could certainly believe the Scots capable of it. Her real worry was that her father might sanction such an act, to appease the foreign king and ensure the Scots left Fotla as soon as possible.
And much as she wanted that same outcome, she didn’t want it at the expense of such deception. If there were assassins loose in Fotla, they needed to hunt them down. Who knew which side they might be on?
“I would put nothing past MacAlpin. Yet I cannot deny, had you or one of your brothers or sisters been attacked in such a manner, I would not rest until the offender had been found.”
She squeezed his hand, glad they were alone, save for her mother. There had always been a special bond between them, but such intimacy would be unthinkable had the royal advisers been present.
“The scheming MacAllister accompanies them.” Disdain dripped from her mother’s voice. “We must be vigilant. He sees too much.”
It was MacAllister who had uncovered Mae’s disguise a month ago. But if her own mamma had not betrayed their trust, the Scot would never have been able to prove his suspicion.
The injustice burned deep, and she could not help responding. “Then we must be sure not to disclose anything to him.”
Her mother gave a tight smile, that didn’t reach her eyes, but said nothing. There was nothing to say that could redeem her actions.
Oblivious, her father kissed her hand. “I must ask you, Briana. As a chosen one of our forebears’ goddess, has Bride come to you lately? I confess, these last nine months, I fear the ancient ones have forsaken us.”
Dread gripped her, a suffocating terror that crushed her chest and threatened to close her throat. Bride had not returned since the night of the sacred Blood Moon, when she had whispered in her ear to find Mae and bring her back to Fotla-eviot.
She’d tried not to worry about it. Tried to smother the threads of trepidation that wound through her heart but now the unvarnished possibility would not be thrust aside.
Was Bride’s absence because Briana had misunderstood her beloved goddess’ message? Was this Bride’s punishment, banishment from her presence, for allowing Mae to be captured by their ruthless enemies?
She couldn’t share her fears with him, without implicating her mother. And while it was conceivable the king had known of the plan to sacrifice Mae to placate the Scots’ king, it was equally possible he was not aware of the details.
It was one thing for her to silently rage against her mother. But the royal house of Fotla could not afford any cracks to show in its facade. The kingdoms of Pictland had been splintered enough, since MacAlpin had claimed the Supreme Kingdom of Fortriu for his own, and it was imperative that, to the outside world at least, Fotla remained united.
For the stark truth was, they needed this alliance to survive. Needed the strength in numbers the Scots could provide if either the Vikings or Northumbrians decided on a full-scale invasion.
She knew this. They all did. It was why they had to protect this alliance, despite its dreadful cost, so they could defend their land and people against even worse enemies.
She drew in a steadying breath. It would do no good for her father to guess the depth of her distress. After all, there was nothing he could do about it. He was not a chosen one of Bride.
“The goddess has not blessed me with a vision. But I am certain when the time is right, she will show the way.”
Once again, a ripple of unease slithered along her spine, as though she was missing something of great import that shimmered just beyond her grasp.
The king sighed heavily. “I understand, daughter. But I had to ask.”
He turned to the queen, and she inclined her head before she spoke. “Much as it irks, we have decided to welcome the savages and invite them to a feast this eve. The sole purpose of this is to encourage their warriors to spill secrets they would keep close during the light of day.”
“Very well.” Her voice was calm, for which she was grateful. She certainly didn’t wish her parents to guess how the thought of seeing MacKinnon at the feast discomposed her so.
“Let it be known to your ladies their devotion to the continued security of Pictland is greatly appreciated.”
“Briana.” The king’s voice was grim. “We do not wish you to imperil your integrity. But your status is such that it might persuade an unwary confidence.”
Goddess. She hadn’t expected this. Last time, her mamma had expressly forbidden her from indulging in such political intrigues. Not that she’d had any intention of doing so, but her mother hadn’t known that.
“You wish me to seduce a high ranking Scot?” She could scarcely believe her father was asking such a thing of her, but she needed to be sure. Yet even if he was, this was not something she could do.
Even for the sake of Pictland.
Unbidden, Ewan MacKinnon’s face swam through her mind and treacherous heat bloomed. His dark fascination was a poisoned thorn and although, despite how she tried to deny it, he was the only man she could imagine in her bed, it was that very reason why he was the last man she could ever welcome into her arms.
“What? No.” The king sounded shocked. As though such strategies had never been undertaken before. “We are speaking of flirtation, Briana. Flattering the enemy into a state of complacency where they might become incautious in their boasting. The wine will run freely and doubtless too, so will their tongues.”
Hastily, she pushed the shameless images from her mind. Such liberties would never happen. Certainly, not with MacKinnon.
“I understand.” Thankfully, her turmoil did not show in her voice. “Although I believe the only one who might possess such information is MacAllister himself, and I doubt anything will induce him to give up his king’s secrets.”
“I fear you could be right,” the king said. “But it appears his son, MacConall, is among the men this time. If anyone knows something, it is likely to be him. The bond of blood is strong.”
“As a gesture of goodwill, we propose to allow the Scots to sit with our nobles.” The queen drew in a sharp breath, clearly displeased by the notion. “However, if you do not wish to debase yourself in such a manner, you will sit with us, as usual.”
“I know my duty.” Her voice was cool. “I shall stomach the Scots presence and attempt to discover all I can.”
Phantom butterflies collided within her breast as Briana and her ladies made their way to the great hall. Ewan MacKinnon had returned, but she was not required to converse with him. Which was just as well, since she had already proved that her ability to engage him in conversation was as abysmal now as it had been last month.
It was too infuriating that she could not stop thinking of him. She had made a vow, long before the death of her husband more than a year ago, to never allow another man to addle her good sense. Once was more than enough.
Yet it didn’t matter how many harsh talks she gave herself. From the first moment she had caught sight of MacKinnon the cursed man had dazzled her, as though she were a naïve fourteen-year-old maid instead of a widow who knew all too well how meaningless such shallow passion was.
As she had told her mother, her duty was clear. MacConall was the one she needed to charm and while she doubted any man who shared MacAllister’s blood was susceptible to such strategies, she could but try. She just hoped MacKinnon was not seated anywhere near her.
The table she had been allocated loomed before her. The Scots were already standing at designated intervals before the benches, waiting for the arrival of the royal family and nobles. At the head of the table was her chair, a silent proclamation of her status that her mamma had insisted upon.
And standing to the right of the chair, facing her as she approached, stood Ewan MacKinnon.
Panic thudded through her breast. Goddess, no. It was bad enough he had returned to Fotla. But what cruel twist of fate had placed him right beside her for this eve?
Her ladies whispered behind her and with a start she realized she had halted. It seemed every eye in the hall was upon her, judging her, even though, surely, she had only faltered for merely an instant.
Refusing to glance around the hall to confirm her certainty, she tilted her head and proceeded to stand before the chair. The noblewomen of the court, in their vibrant gowns and precious jewels, took their places and they all dutifully waited while the king and queen entered the hall and sat at the high table on the dais.
It was her cue to sit, and everyone else followed suit. Ramrod straight, she fixed a serene expression on her face and hoped no one could see how tightly she gripped her fingers beneath the table. As the senior royal at the table—as the only royal—she was obliged to start the conversation. To put everyone at ease and allow general discourse to proceed.
Her mouth dried. Her heart hammered. The tense silence screamed in her ears, compounded by how the murmur from neighboring tables was becoming progressively louder.
MacKinnon dominated her vision, even though she remained gazing straight ahead. Yet from the corner of her eye, his expansive chest and muscular biceps taunted her with blatant provocation. Thankfully, he was too big for her to catch sight of his face, unless she turned to him. Which, obviously, she needed to, unless she intended everyone to endure the feast in an excruciating silence.
She caught sight of Lady Gavina who looked both thrilled and tortured as she sat mutely beside MacKinnon. Like a spell unravelling, ice-cold clarity drenched her overheated paralysis.
It was not Ewan she needed to speak to. It was MacAllister’s son. How had she forgotten so basic an instruction? This was what happened when reckless emotions ruled one’s head.
As servants brought out the first platters, she turned to the man by her side. With Ewan no longer encompassing her vision, how easy it was to loosen her foolish tongue. “Welcome to the Kingdom of Fotla.”
Now all she needed to do was avoid looking at Ewan for the rest of the night, and all would be well.
Stop looking at her.
Ewan shifted on the hard bench, but his damn cock throbbed, and it was impossible to get comfortable. And despite his frustrated brain’s harsh command, he wasn’t looking at Briana. Except it didn’t appear to matter where he trained his gaze, all he could see was her coolly beautiful face as she’d swept her icy green eyes over him as though he wasn’t even there.
God damn it. From the moment he’d first met her last month he had been unable to get her out of his head. They had barely spoken the last time he’d been stationed in Fotla, but the princess had made her disdain for him clear. Even earlier today, her displeasure at his presumption of greeting her in the great hall had been palpable.
What he couldn’t understand was why it irked him.
With a monumental effort, he smiled at the young noblewoman by his side. It wasn’t usually this hard to focus on a lady who was clearly an expert in the arts of flirtation. Hell, it wasn’t hard at all.
Until he’d met Briana.
“Are you quite well, MacKinnon?” There was a curious note in the noblewoman’s voice, and he hauled his disconcerting worries back into line. God damn it, he had no clue what they’d been talking about. What the fuck was wrong with him?
“Forgive me, Lady Gavina. I lost myself in the beauty of your eyes.” Her eyes were pretty enough, but they were not a hypnotic green, like Briana’s.
She laughed, clearly forgiving him for his lapse, and he managed to keep his mind on the conversation so he could answer her without disgracing himself further.
It didn’t stop him from noting how Briana appeared entranced with Rourke. And Rourke, the bastard, was lapping it up.
He downed a long gulp of wine. Would this feast never end? Yet when it did, Briana would leave.
Aye. He was losing his lust-crazed mind.
MacAllister appeared and bowed to Briana before giving Rourke a message. Rourke’s face tightened in obvious irritation, but he didn’t respond. Instead, he stood, offered apologies to the princess, and kissed her hand before leaving the hall. MacAllister, interestingly, returned to his seat.
“Alas,” breathed Lady Gavina. “I fear you must attend to our princess, MacKinnon. It is most irregular for my lady to be deserted in such a manner.”
Against his better judgment he turned to Briana and caught her startled gaze. Instantly, she looked away, focusing on her platter, her profile emanating a regal air that was anything but welcoming.
Shit. They weren’t here to insult their hosts. What the fuck had MacAllister been thinking? Nothing could be so urgent as to order Rourke from the hall, but if there had been an emergency, why hadn’t he summoned the entire contingent?
Yet his duty was plain. It was inconceivable that he continued to ignore the princess, now Rourke had gone.
“Forgive me,” he said to the noblewoman. It seemed he had done nothing but ask her to overlook transgressions this eve. Before he could continue, she smiled, and patted his arm.
“It is quite all right,” she whispered. “Perhaps we shall dance later, and you may make amends.”
Another time, the possibility of furthering their acquaintance would have fired his blood. Tonight, the prospect left him cold. He drew in a measured breath, as though he were about to meet the Norse on a battlefield, and turned to the princess.
Her gown was a deep shade of forest green, with long sleeves intricately embroidered with golden wolves. The gowns of Pict ladies were utterly unlike those of Scots noblewomen, but even in Pictland he’d never seen anything quite like this before.
Wolves were, after all, the symbol of a warrior.
Yet he couldn’t deny it. Despite her fragile air, the motif of the fierce predator somehow suited her.
“My lady,” he said.
She shot him a hostile glance. “MacKinnon.” Her voice was as chilled as her eyes.
Certainly, he understood why she would distrust Scots, yet her animosity didn’t extend to the other warriors who had accompanied him. But there was no getting out of this.
“If I might be so bold, my lady, you are looking quite splendid this eve.” As the compliment left his mouth, it took all his considerable willpower not to wince. Why did pretty words fall so easily from his lips when he flirted with other ladies, yet sounded so insincere when he directed them to Briana?
“Now I am not battered by the winter elements?”
In truth, he thought she’d looked delightful with her hair escaping its confines, her face glowing from the icy weather, and with snow sprinkled over her cloak. More approachable.
How wrong could he have been? He suspected she might throw the contents of her goblet in his face if he shared such tactless revelations. “Invigorated was the word that came to mind.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Invigorated?” She responded in her entrancingly accented Gaelic. “That is a noble observation, indeed. But I must insist you return your attentions to Lady Gavina. There is no need to flirt with me, simply because Rourke MacConall has been called away.”
He should have known she would be under no illusions as why he’d finally acknowledged her. Conversely, it made him want to reassure her that wasn’t the reason at all.
Unfortunately, he was certain she would never believe him.
“My honor would never allow a lady to be left without the benefit of a sparring partner while enjoying a feast.”
“I can assure you, I have no need of… a sparring partner.” Was that the faintest hint of a smile he detected? “What strange ideas you Scots possess, to be sure.”
“Are we Scots so very different to Picts in this matter?”
Her gaze caught his, and the unexpected warmth in her eyes speared a bolt of hot lust through his groin. By some miracle, he managed to keep the primitive groan of need locked in his throat.
“I’m not certain you would truly wish to hear my opinions of Scots, MacKinnon.”
“On the contrary. I’m intrigued.”
“And yet etiquette demands I do not insult our esteemed guests.”
His grin faded as he recalled why she had such a low opinion of his people. Not only because MacAlpin had annexed the Supreme Kingdom of Fortriu. But because, until recently, her own father and brother had been held hostage in Dal Riada.
He should steer the conversation into safer waters. Under no circumstances should he allude to his king’s actions. And yet it was a losing battle. It was wrong, he knew it. But he would not hold his tongue if a few words might clear the air between them.
He refused to consider why he wished for such a thing.
“It’s gracious of your king to receive us as honored guests. We’re under no illusion, my lady. The matter of the assassin must be resolved, but no one is happy about the circumstances that led us here.”
Her eyes widened. Had he been too indiscreet? Yet surely it was worth it, if it showed her, even in a small measure, that not all Scots betrayed their allies for gain.
I have no proof MacAlpin betrayed the Picts in Dunadd. And yet the suspicion gnawed deep, a constant barb of unease that had only magnified during the last nine months.
“My king is honorable, indeed.” Briana glanced at the dais. “And I’m grateful for his return. But his freedom was gained at the expense of Lady Mae.”
There were many things he should say to rebut her accusation. But she wouldn’t believe any of them. And he had no desire to ruin this tentative truce between them by defending the indefensible.
Stop. He had to purge these speculations from his mind. They were nothing short of treasonous and he had no wish to lose his head for something that could never be confirmed.
“If my word means anything, I believe Lady Mae is happy. Braeson worships the ground she walks upon.” Shit. He pulled himself up. “I mean, Lord Finn.” It was hard to reconcile that the commoner Finn Braeson he’d grown up with had now been acknowledge as MacAlpin’s son. “The prince will do anything to ensure her happiness.”
Finn had told him Mae was the only woman for him. And although the last time they’d spoken, the man looked like hell, it was obvious to anyone with eyes in their head that he adored his bride.
Briana toyed with her knife before glancing at him. “You are a close confidant of the prince?”
For a tangled moment, he imagined she spoke of Constantine before common sense kicked in. “We are warriors. And aye, he is a good friend, also.”
“Yet you cannot deny the way he deceived us all regarding his heritage does not bode well for their future.”
He frowned. Was Briana’s antagonism towards him all due to the fact she believed he had been complicit in the deception surrounding Finn? Yet that didn’t make sense. The deception, ordered by MacAlpin, had only come to light at the end of their stay, and the princess had made it plain she found Ewan’s presence objectionable from the day they had arrived.
“My lady, I’m not betraying any confidences when I tell you Finn wasn’t acknowledged by the king until we came to Fotla. Indeed, I had no idea of his elevated status until Lady Mae’s identity was uncovered.”
She was silent, as though contemplating his words. Another course was set upon the table, and a servant refilled his goblet. But he didn’t take another swallow of the wine. He was too entranced by the delicate profile of Briana’s face.
Aye, he could believe it. Despite how his people were taught to despise the old, pagan, ways.
Finally, she caught his gaze once again. Gold flecks highlighted the emerald of her eyes, a detail he hadn’t noticed before. But then, they had never conversed for longer than a few painful moments before tonight.
“It seems your king is more devious than I imagined. And I assure you, that knowledge shocks me.”
She had just insulted the honor of his king, yet he had to battle the urge to grin at the way she raised her eyebrows at him, as though daring him to refute her remark.
“Kings will always use any means to achieve their ends. But he will never harm Lady Mae. Finn will protect her with his life.”
“I hope he does. She deserves nothing less for the way she was hunted across our land like a sacred white deer.”
He sighed. “Scot or Pict, it makes no difference. We are all at the mercy of our kings.”
“Perhaps.” She glanced at the dais and her face softened. He could not have torn his gaze from her had MacAlpin himself commanded it. “Yet not all kings are alike.”
He didn’t agree. But if she wished to harbor that fantasy about her own father, who was he to shatter it?
Despite her best intentions, Briana couldn’t stop from looking once more at the Scot by her side. His rich saffron shirt did nothing to conceal the magnificence of his biceps, and it seemed the only purpose of the plaid slung over his shoulder was to enhance the warrior strength of his chest. With less reluctance than she liked, her glance traveled up and caught his intense blue gaze.
Ah, goddess. The blue of his eyes had haunted her dreams since the day they’d met. It was most vexing, but not nearly as disconcerting as to admit that her dreams had fallen far short of the reality.
Unbidden, an image flooded her mind of Ewan wrapping her in his strong arms and crushing her against that breathtaking chest. The air around her thickened, making it hard to breathe, and prickles of heat danced over her flesh, as dampness bloomed between her thighs.
Mortified, she pressed her knees together, even though it did little to suppress her body’s treacherous urges. But this was why she needed to avoid him. She could not fall prey to base lust, the way she had when she’d been a naïve maid.
Yet, until the feast ended, she had no choice but to suffer his presence.
Brutally, she gathered her scattered wits. Much as she shamefully enjoyed gazing into Ewan’s eyes, she had to remember her duty.
It was most unlikely, but maybe he could help shed some light on any subterfuge MacAllister and his king planned in Fotla. He had, after all, surprisingly eased her mind about Mae.
“It’s a pity,” she said, affecting nonchalance and pretending an interest in the food on her platter, “Rourke MacConall was called away. Are you well acquainted with him, also?”
“Rourke?” There was a thread of confusion in Ewan’s voice and alas, she couldn’t blame him. She wasn’t usually so clumsy when it came to changing the subject. She hoped he did not question her on it. “I know him well, my lady. We were like brothers when we were young.”
She forgot about the dangers of looking at him, until their gazes meshed, and her mouth dried. Focus. Perhaps there was something of import to learn, after all, if Ewan had once looked upon MacAllister as a father.
“You grew up together?”
“More or less. Alongside Ross MacIntosh and Connor MacKenzie. The four of us were going to change the world.”
He gave a mocking smile, and she was entranced by the flash of dimple in his cheek. How had she not noticed that before? Although, until this eve, she had never given him reason to smile at her in such a manner.
And then his words penetrated. Connor MacKenzie. And the small flicker of warmth in her breast sputtered and died.
“MacKenzie.” There was a chill in her voice that she couldn’t help. “The Scot who coerced my dear cousin Lady Aila into marriage.”
Ewan’s smile vanished and she ignored the small stab of regret that pierced her heart. She could not afford to forget who the enemy was, yet how easy it was to do so, when MacKinnon held the power to dazzle her with such ease.
“To my knowledge, the Princess of Ce and MacKenzie are well suited. Connor places Lady Aila’s happiness above everything.”
Did Ewan think her a fool? Political marriages were about one thing only. And it had nothing to do with the happiness of the bride involved. “Are all Scots such attentive husbands? How fortunate their wives must be.”
“The same question could be asked of Pict husbands.”
Irked, she picked up her goblet and took a long swallow. It was most unseemly for any unrelated man to be so blunt. The fact that the man was a Scot, and Ewan MacKinnon in particular, was infuriating.
Just because he was right was beside the point. And her vexation at his response most certainly had nothing to do with the humiliating shortcomings she’d endured from her own noble born husband.
“My lady.” Ewan’s husky voice was a sinful caress against her skin. She gripped the stem of her goblet before she dropped the cursed thing. It was not her imagination. The Scot was leaning across the table, so close, his warm breath dusted her cheek.
How… how dare he?
But she could not even turn her head, never mind tell him to remember his place.
“I did not mean to offend you.”
He was apologizing. As he should. So why did her heart pound as though he were whispering scandalous bedchamber secrets in her ear?
She inclined her head, before he guessed how dreadfully he affected her. “I’m not offended. Merely concerned for the wellbeing of my cousin.”
Aila was her second cousin, but all the royal houses of Pictland were connected by blood and marriage. And although she had been but ten years old at the time, she well recalled attending Aila’s first wedding, when she had married a prince of Fidach, one of the northern kingdoms in Pictland.
It had been a rare thing, indeed. A love match. The romantic notion had fixed in her head, and she had been determined that nothing less than a love match would do for her, also.
What a foolish child she had been. She had adored her charming, flirtatious husband blindly, but while he had liked her well enough, and not been especially unkind, it hadn’t stopped him from bedding other women. And worse, fathering children on them. The betrayal and the one-sided love had slowly destroyed her.
“I understand how it looks.” Ewan pulled back, and she hitched in a ragged breath. She focused with fierce concentration on her goblet, but it was no use. She could no sooner deny the magnetic allure of looking at him once again as she could deny the ancient, mystical power of the moon.
“Do you?” Instead of the cool tone she strived for, the words were husky. Inviting. She desperately hoped he hadn’t noticed.
“As a political strategy, it makes good sense to strengthen our position against the Norse—and the Northumbrians— by intermarriage between Scot and Pict. But those who engineer the alliances don’t have to live with them.”
Entranced by his frankness, she could not tear her gaze from his. “Arranged marriages between the royal houses has always been the way in Pictland. It is not the strategy that stings, Ewan. It’s the unscrupulous tactics of your king.”
“I cannot speak for my king, my lady.” There was a stiff note in his voice. Had she offended him? It hadn’t occurred to her she might, but it should have. More than that, what was she thinking to speak so candidly?
It was one thing to confide in Mae, and her trusted ladies. But she couldn’t afford to share her thoughts with this warrior when every word might later be repeated to his despicable king.
The tables were cleared, and when she rose from her chair, her ladies flocked around her as the hall was readied for the night’s entertainment. But instead of retreating with the rest of the Scots, Ewan remained by her side.
It was most distracting.
And then Drest appeared and stood silently behind her, his arms folded, and his usual dark scowl on his face. Doubtless, her brother had requested he keep her in his sights this night and annoyance flashed through her at his presumption.
If she needed additional bodyguards now the Scots were back in Fotla-eviot, that was something her father would discuss with her. It was not Artair’s place, and she would tell him so at the earliest opportunity.
“It is good to see you again, MacKinnon,” Lady Nairne said, without a hint of what she really thought of him for breaking her sister’s heart. “Pray tell, is Lord Constantine fully recovered from his injury?”
Briana kept a serene smile on her face, but inside she silently groaned. It didn’t matter what she thought of the Dal Riadan prince. Or that whenever she was in Ewan’s presence her good sense left her. It was inexcusable that she had forgotten to ask after Constantine’s health.
“He is, my lady. There should be no lasting ill-effects from the arrow.”
“That is good news, indeed.” Nairne inclined her head. “We are all anxious that the assassin is hunted down as swiftly as possible.”
Ross MacIntosh joined Ewan and after he had kissed her hand in greeting, he proceeded to charm her ladies, the way he had a month ago.
How odd his pretty words and hard, warrior body did not affect her in the least.
If only she was so immune to Ewan MacKinnon.
© Christina Phillips 2022
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