“What is that god-awful smell?” Sir Malcolm McKenna wrinkled his nose and glanced down at his five-year-old daughter, Lileas, who stood at his side in the bailey of McKenna Castle. The child sniffed loudly, then turned toward the faithful hound that was her constant companion. “It must be Prince. I think he needs a bath.” Hearing his name, the motley beast lifted his ears and cocked his head. Malcolm studied the large dog, yet saw no muck on his fur or paws. However, the hem of his daughter’s gown was dark with filth and he suspected her shoes were even worse. She had clearly been in the stables, a place forbidden to her without permission. Malcolm raised a brow. “Prince?” “Aye.” Lileas nodded her head enthusiastically. “Cook calls him a mangy, dirty cur when she chases him from the kitchens. But we love him anyway, don’t we, Papa?” The little girl smiled broadly at him, looking so like her mother that Malcolm felt a pang of melancholy. His arranged marriage to Margaret Douglas had been brief, and while not unhappy, had hardly been the relationship he sought. He had wanted a wife who would challenge and excite him.
Who had opinions of her own, was blessed with a sharp mind and high spirits. He wanted the close comradery of love and devotion his parents shared. And passion. Aye, he wanted a woman in his bed who would fire his blood and answer his kisses and caresses with bold ones of her own. When they first married, Margaret had been sweet and kind and so eager to please at times it made him feel guilty for not returning her blind devotion. Over time, his lack of overt affection toward her brought on a clinging, almost desperate behavior that further distanced him from his wife. She became quick to cry and even quicker to complain. Truth be told, he found his demanding wife exhausting. Perhaps they had wed too young. Perhaps in time he would have found a way to make her happy and in turn learned to give Margaret the love she so desperately craved.
Alas, he would never know for certain. Margaret had died of a sudden fever when their daughter was barely two years old. He mourned her passing with true emotion, knowing he owed his young wife an unimaginable debt of gratitude, for she had given him the most precious gift of all—a child. It was not the son and heir that so many in the clan had hoped and prayed would arrive. In truth, many believed that Margaret had failed in her duty by birthing a daughter. But Malcolm knew they were wrong. From the first moment he’d held Lileas’s small, squirming body in his arms, Malcolm felt a rush of emotion so strong it had weakened his knees. To this day, every time he looked into the mischievous face of his daughter, his heart swelled with love. He could not imagine his life without her—impish lass that she was—full of life and laughter and most assuredly the boldest child in all the Highlands. At least that’s what his parents, and most of their clan, always told him.
He knew that he spoiled and indulged her more than he should, but these early years of carefree childhood disappeared so quickly and he wanted to enjoy them as much as his daughter did. Malcolm and Lileas made their way across the bailey, stopping in front of the heavy oak door that led to the great hall. Prince followed cheerfully behind them, his large tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth. “Nay, Lileas, Prince cannae enter the hall smelling the way he does,” Malcolm said. “Yer grandmother will have fits.” Malcolm folded his arms over his chest and waited for his daughter to confess that it wasn’t the dog who smelled so foul, ’twas her. Lileas turned to her pet, then gazed beseechingly at her father. “I can help draw the water from the well fer Prince’s bath.” Malcolm shook his head. “I dinnae have time to bathe him now.
Nor does anyone else,” he added, anticipating her response. “He’ll have to stay outside.” His parents were nearly as indulgent as he was when it came to Lileas, but even their generosity did not extend to bathing a dog that they insisted should be kept in the kennels and not allowed to sleep in Lileas’s bedchamber beneath her bed. Besides, for once it was not the dog who smelled so rank, but the child. Lileas frowned and pulled her bottom lip back and forth between her teeth. “Prince will feel very sad if he has to stay outside.” “Aye.” “He will probably start barking. Very loudly. He might even start to whimper and cry.
” “More than likely.” Lileas’s lips began to quiver. “I’ll cry, too.” Malcolm’s heart lurched at the sight of her watery eyes and he nearly relented. Nay! She had to learn to obey, if only for her own safety. She had been warned about the dangers of the stables, but had deliberately ignored the rule. Thankfully, nothing tragic had befallen her, but what about the next time? Would she be so fortunate? His heart nearly ceased beating at the possibility. “It will take more than a few tears to take the stench off Prince,” Malcolm said casually. Lileas rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. “He doesn’t smell that bad,” she insisted stubbornly.
“But ye do.” Malcolm leaned down, his broad nose nearly touching his daughter’s. “How do ye suppose that happened?” Lileas lowered her eyes and looked away. “Ye shouldn’t say that I smell. Grandmother says it isn’t polite to insult a lady.” “Aye, and a true lady doesn’t lie. Especially to her papa,” Malcolm said reprovingly. Lileas chewed anxiously on her lower lip. “I’m sorry that I smell, Papa. May I have a bath?” “Not until ye tell me how ye got this way.
” The child took a deep breath. Then looking uncharacteristically serious, she declared, “I stepped in some horse muck.” “In the bailey?” Malcolm questioned, deciding to test her honesty. Lileas’s eyes lit with excitement. She opened her mouth to agree, then paused and lowered her chin. “Nay, Papa. The muck was in the stables. I brought carrots and apples for the horses.” Malcolm slowly exhaled with relief, then gave his daughter an understanding smile. “I know how much ye love being around the horses, but I’ve told ye many times that ye cannae feed them unless someone is with ye.
” “Duncan was there!” Lileas protested. “An adult,” Malcolm clarified. “A lad of ten is hardly a proper escort around such fierce animals. Those horses are bred fer battle. A wee lass like ye can so easily be hurt.” “I’m always careful,” Lileas insisted. “And the horses like me. They never hurt me. I feed them treats and sometimes weave flowers in their manes. They always look so pretty when I’m done.
” Malcolm tried to mask his amusement as he pictured his father, the warrior laird Brian McKenna, riding into battle on a horse with delicate purple heather in its mane. “Nevertheless, ye must do as ye are told, Lileas.” “I’m sorry.” Lileas heaved a long sigh. “’Tis not easy for a poor motherless child to always behave as she should. If I had a proper mother—” “Lileas,” Malcolm warned. “The lack of a mother is no excuse fer yer behavior, as ye well know.” Lileas hung her head and slowly drew her foot across the hard dirt. Malcolm could see the muck clumping around the edges of her halfboots and worried the leather would stiffen after it was thoroughly cleaned. Rigid boots meant blisters, and while not a severe condition, they could fester if not treated properly.
He made a mental note to speak with the cobbler about having a new pair of boots made. “Are ye very mad at me, Papa?” Malcolm took a deep breath. Aye, he was angry. But that fierce emotion was quickly leaving him. No matter what her behavior, he simply found it impossible to stay mad at his daughter. “Well, not as mad as I would have been if ye had continued to lie to me,” he said, smoothing the hair on the top of her head. The sudden sound of thundering hoofbeats coming hard and fast from beyond the castle walls pulled Malcolm’s attention away from Lileas. No alarm had been sounded, but he saw several of the soldiers on the battlements rush forward. Concerned, Malcolm turned his gaze toward the heavy gate, waiting to see if it would be closed. He reached automatically for his sword, dismayed to find it was not in its usual place at his side.
Having just come from the practice field, he had given the weapon to his squire to clean and oil. The dirk in his belt was a comfort; he was confident he could defend himself and protect his child, if needed. Yet realistically, Malcolm knew there was no cause for fear. McKenna Castle was one of the best-fortified structures in the Highlands, boasting a high square watchtower, wide battlements, and a gray stone curtain wall that was nearly fifteen feet thick. Even in the unlikely event that an enemy was able to breach these impressive defenses, they would then be facing an army of McKenna soldiers, arguably the fiercest fighting men in all of Scotland. A sizable contingent of men rode through the open gates. Instinctively, Malcolm thrust Lileas behind him, but his rigid stance slowly relaxed when he recognized the man leading the riders. “Uncle James!” Lileas screeched excitedly and took off at a run. Malcolm grinned as he watched his younger brother dismount, then capture Lileas in his arms and swing her high in the air, before pulling her to his chest and hugging her tightly. Malcolm followed his daughter at a more dignified pace, unable to hold back his chuckle when he saw his brother wiggle his nose as he sniffed, obviously trying to decide from where a most unpleasant odor was emanating.
James quickly surmised it was Lileas, but to his credit, he still held her close. The lass giggled, twining her arms tightly around his neck as he swung her back and forth. “What sort of mischief have ye been getting yerself into since I last saw ye, lass?” James asked, as he gently set her on her feet. “None,” she replied, lowering her chin. “I’m a very good girl and I always listen and do what I’m told.” Malcolm cleared his throat loudly. His daughter turned to him with a mulish expression. “I try very hard to do what I’m told.” “That’s all anyone can ask of ye.” James reached over to grasp Malcolm’s hand in greeting, but Lileas stepped between them.
“Where is Aunt Davina? Is she coming, too? And where is her baby? Is it here? I want to hold it. I promise to be very, very careful. Grandmother told me that I must pray fer them both, and I do, every night. I pray fer ye, too, Uncle James.” The words spilled out of the child’s mouth faster than she could speak them. James put his hand on his niece’s shoulder. “Aunt Davina is back at Torridon Keep, waiting fer the bairn to arrive. But it will still be many months before it comes.” “I hope it’s a lass,” Lileas declared. “Like me.
” “Och, Lileas, there’s none like ye,” James said with a laugh, as he ruffled the child’s hair. “And fer that we all give thanks,” the McKenna declared, interrupting the reunion. Their father, laird of the McKenna clan, stepped forward and slapped James on the shoulder affectionately. James barely had time to greet his father before their mother came rushing over. She launched herself forward, hugging her son tightly. “Why did ye not send word that ye were coming?” Lady Aileen scolded, as she patted James’s cheek. “Is Davina with ye?” “Nay, Mother, she is safely resting at home.” “’Tis best, I suppose, but I would have longed to see her.” Lady Aileen’s face darkened. “Why dinnae ye send word of yer arrival? If I had known, I would have instructed Cook to prepare all yer favorite dishes.
” “Enough of yer fussing, Aileen,” the McKenna grumbled. “James will simply have to make do with the swill ye were going to serve the rest of us.” Malcolm exchanged an amused glance with the McKenna, as their mother’s jaw dropped in indignation. “Ye had best be minding yer manners, Brian McKenna,” Lady Aileen answered tartly. “Or else I’ll make certain that tonight yer trencher is filled with a meal fit only fer the hogs.” There was an instant of tense silence in the busy courtyard. The McKenna glared at his wife. Lady Aileen glared back. The McKenna broke first, his broad, sun-kissed face widening into a deep grin. Lady Aileen answered that grin with one of her own, then lifted her cheek for her husband’s gentle kiss.
Malcolm watched them with a mixture of confusion and awe. All his life he had witnessed the intense passion between his parents—in nearly every interaction. They fought and made up with equal fervor and yet through it all somehow maintained a level of respect and regard. Having been married himself, Malcolm honestly did not understand how this was possible. Perhaps it was love that held them so solidly together. Yet he knew it took more than mere affection and emotion. His parents were bound together by a thread so strong that no matter how hard it was pulled, it never seemed to break. ’Twas precisely the type of marriage that Malcolm had dared to hope he could create. Judging by the expression of devotion on James’s face whenever his wife’s name was mentioned, he believed that his younger brother was well on his way to achieving that kind of relationship. Clearly, it was not so very rare.
It was possible to find. With a melancholy sigh, Malcolm realized that he simply had to keep searching. James gestured for one of the knights in his party to come forward. “I would like to introduce Sir Gideon Croft. Gideon, this is my father, Laird McKenna, my mother, Lady Aileen, and my older brother, Malcolm.” “’Tis an honor to meet you all,” Sir Gideon said as he executed a deep, formal bow. Lileas poked James sharply in his side with her elbow. “What about me?” “Och, forgive me, lass.” James laughed. “Though I believe that Sir Gideon already knows yer name.
” “He does?” Clearly delighted at the notion, Lileas craned her neck and gazed at the tall, handsome knight. “Does he also know I like horses and dogs and more than anything in the whole wide world, I want a new mother?” “I do now.” Sir Gideon bent his knee and twirled his hand dramatically in the air. “’Tis a great honor to make yer acquaintance, Lady Lileas.” Lileas dipped her chin and favored him with a flirty smile. “No one ever calls me Lady Lileas. I like it!” Everyone laughed. Well, everyone except Malcolm. He was not amused by his daughter’s coy, flirty attitude. Only five years old and already practicing her feminine wiles! Perhaps she did need a mother to take her in hand.
“I bid ye welcome to McKenna Castle, Sir Gideon,” Lady Aileen said. “Ye’re not a Highlander,” the McKenna observed, his eyes narrowing. Sir Gideon rose slowly from his bow. “No, Laird. My mother was French. I’m only half Scots.” “The better half,” James quipped. There was a tense bit of laughter. “I fought in the Crusade beside your son, Laird McKenna,” Sir Gideon said. “Aye, and saved my arse a time or two,” James added.
He smiled warmly at his friend and the tension slowly eased. Highlanders were naturally suspicious of any that were not their own, but James’s approval assured Sir Gideon’s acceptance. At least for now. “Come inside and warm yerselves by the fire,” Lady Aileen said, as she entwined her arm with James’s. Malcolm felt an unexpected twinge of jealousy at her obvious favoritism, yet could understand her need to hold her second son close. For five years James had been away from them, fighting in the Crusades. He had returned last year, married soon after, then moved to take command of his wife’s keep. Though happy to have him back on Scottish soil, Lady Aileen often lamented the journey to see James and Davina took a fortnight—if the weather was fair. But the usual Highland rains and muddy roads that were so much a part of daily life added days of discomfort to the trip. Given her choice, Lady Aileen would be content to have all her adult children—and grandchildren —living within their solid castle walls.
Yet she understood James’s need for independence, often remarking on how proud she was of the success he had achieved in making his wife’s formerly neglected estate thrive. Once inside the great hall, Malcolm signaled for one of the maids. “Make certain Lileas is thoroughly washed and changes into clean garments,” Malcolm instructed. “And clean shoes.” The maid scrunched her nose at the offensive odor wafting off the child, yet offered Lileas her hand. His daughter gave him a pleading glance, but Malcolm stood firm, crossing his arms to show her he meant business. Lileas’s small hands curled into defiant fists as her pleading turned to a glare. Malcolm never blinked. Lileas’s face began to turn red, but the maid intervened before the child’s fit of temper could be aired. A small grin escaped Malcolm’s lips as he watched his silent, pouting, rank-smelling daughter being led away.
James took a seat on the dais and gestured for Sir Gideon to do the same. Their mother sat beside James, her hand resting possessively on his arm, as though she feared he would vanish if she wasn’t touching him. The McKenna seated himself on the large chair, then waved his hand, and the few men gathered in the hall moved away to allow the laird privacy. “Is all well? How does Davina fare?” Lady Aileen inquired. “Getting bigger every day,” James answered with a grin. “And bossier.” “A pregnant wife is both a joy and a challenge,” Malcolm agreed, proud that his voice remained deep and steady. The sharp jab of emotion he had experienced when he learned that Davina carried a child had surprised Malcolm, and he was relieved that given time, he was able to successfully bury it. Yet feeling his mother’s keen eyes upon him, Malcolm averted his gaze. There were times when she made him feel as though she could read his thoughts and he certainly didn’t want to share them now.
He was glad of his brother’s happiness—truly. But the occasional pangs of disappointment that Davina had chosen James over him still lingered. “Sir Gideon has journeyed here from the far north,” James said. “He brings troubling news concerning our family.” James lowered his head, then cast a quick, sidelong glance at his brother. Their eyes met for an instant and a sudden sense of foreboding crept down Malcolm’s spine. He shook it off, yet traces remained. This had to be something very important to drag his brother away from his pregnant wife’s side. “Tell us this news, Sir Gideon,” the McKenna commanded. Sir Gideon turned to the laird, his handsome face lined with concern.
“As James has said, I was in the north these last few months and heard a most distressing tale about your family.” Sir Gideon grew silent as several servants approached, bearing trays of food, wine, ale, and whiskey. The moment they placed the bounty on the table, the McKenna hastily shooed them away. “Ye were saying,” the McKenna prompted. Sir Gideon drew in a troubled breath. “The MacPhearson laird has placed a bounty on Sir Malcolm’s head.” Malcolm slammed down his tankard of ale so hard half the contents spilled onto the table. “What?” “’Tis true,” Sir Gideon insisted solemnly. “I heard it from several different men, including one who serves in the MacPhearson guard.” “A bounty? Fer what reason? I’ve never done anything to the MacPhearsons to warrant such treatment!” Malcolm cried indignantly.
“He claims it is retribution for the dishonor that you have placed upon his clan. Specifically, his youngest daughter, Brienne.” Squirming slightly, Sir Gideon pushed the hair away from his face. “A few months ago, she gave birth to a bastard child. They say that you are the father.” Malcolm sat back in his chair, too stunned to reply. A bastard child? My bastard child? The McKenna’s eyes drifted over Sir Gideon. “Are ye certain that ye heard this right?” “I am. The bounty is set at a princely sum and word is spreading,” Sir Gideon replied. “It won’t be long until men hoping to collect it will arrive on your lands.
” “Is that why ye are here?” the McKenna inquired smoothly. “To collect the bounty on my son?” “Father! James pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. “Gideon is a trusted friend. He comes here today as a favor to me.” “And we are grateful fer it, aren’t we, Brian?” Lady Aileen placed her hand on James’s arm and gently guided him back into his seat. “I take no offense at your suspicions, Laird McKenna,” Sir Gideon said. “It is a reasonable assumption. But I give you my word of honor that I will never take up arms against a McKenna. I owe James my loyalty and I take that oath most seriously.” “Thank ye, Sir Gideon,” Lady Aileen said with a gracious smile.
“We are indeed indebted to ye.” The McKenna nodded warily, then raising an inquiring eyebrow, turned toward his eldest son. “What do ye have to say fer yerself, Malcolm? Is this tale untrue? Or could the bairn be yers?” Malcolm was too shocked to be insulted by the question. Frowning, he scratched his head, searching his mind for a memory. “I dinnae recall ever meeting any of the MacPhearson lasses.” “What about last year’s spring fete?” James asked. “Members of all the clans were in attendance. Could ye have met the lass then?” “’Tis possible, but I certainly would have remembered,” Malcolm replied strongly, his voice reverberating off the high stone walls. Yet, in all honesty, he couldn’t be certain. Spending several weeks prior to the fete at his brother’s keep had left Malcolm in a peculiar mood.
It had been difficult continually witnessing the love and affection James shared with his new wife, a woman whom Malcolm had once hoped to claim as his own. The initial relief he had experienced when finally escaping their company had caused some rather uncharacteristic behavior. He had forgone the tournaments and mock battles at the fete—events he generally enjoyed—and instead spent far too much of his time indulging in the fine whiskey that flowed so freely. And flirting with all the pretty lasses. Was it possible that he had bedded the MacPhearson lass when he was too drunk to remember? That shameful prospect left a bitter taste on Malcolm’s tongue. “Malcolm? What can ye tell us of the fete and the Lady Brienne?” His mother’s questioning voice pulled Malcolm from his musing. He felt the heat of a blush rise to his cheeks as he glanced at her. She narrowed her brow, making him feel like a green lad of fifteen. Swallowing hard, he looked away.