The weather for her first wedding had been a splendor of nature. An unseasonably warm day in January. Quite balmy with nary a breeze to ruffle her carefully arranged hair. It was as if the world stood still to witness the joining of two souls.
A snort rippled from Rionna McDonald’s throat, eliciting a raised eyebrow from her soon-to-be husband.
The weather for her second wedding? Gloomy and dank with a winter storm pushing in from the west. Already a brisk chill had set in and the wind blew in fierce, relentless sheets. As if the world knew just how uncertain she was about the man who stood beside her, ready to recite the vows that would bind him to her forever.
A shiver skirted up her spine despite the fact that they stood in front of the huge fire in the great hall.
Caelen frowned and stepped closer to Rionna as if to shield her from the draft blowing through the furs at the window. She took a hasty step back before thinking better of it. The man made her nervous, and not many people intimidated her.
He frowned harder, then turned his attention back to the priest.
Rionna cast a quick glance around, hoping no one had witnessed that particular exchange. It wouldn’t do for people to think she was afraid of her new husband. Even if she was.
Ewan McCabe, the oldest McCabe brother and the first man she was supposed to have married, stood by his brother’s side, his arms crossed over his broad chest. He looked anxious to be done with the whole thing.
Alaric McCabe, the man she’d very nearly wed after Ewan got himself married to Mairin Stuart, also looked impatient and kept glancing toward the stairs as if he might run out at any moment. Rionna couldn’t blame him, though. His new wife, Keeley, was above stairs recovering from a wound that had nearly ended her life.
Third time was a charm, right?
King David wasn’t standing for the occasion. He sat regally by the fire, looking on with approval as the priest droned on. Around him, also sitting, were the many lairds from neighboring lands. All waiting for the alliance between the McDonalds and the McCabes. An alliance that would be sealed upon her marriage to Caelen McCabe, the youngest–and last–McCabe brother.
It was important to denote last because if anything went amiss with this wedding, there were no more McCabes for her to marry, and at this point, her pride couldn’t withstand another rejection.
Her gaze skittered from the king and assembled lairds to her dour-faced father who sat away from the assembled warriors, an unmanly, sullen pout twisting his features.
For a moment their stares locked and then his lip turned up into a snarl. She hadn’t supported him in his bid to keep his position of laird. It was probably disloyal of her. She wasn’t sure that Caelen McCabe would be a better laird, but surely he was a better man.
She became aware that all eyes were on her. She glanced nervously toward the priest and realized that she’d missed her cue to recite her vows. Even more embarrassing, she had no idea what the man had said.
“This is where you promise to obey me, cleave only unto me, and remain faithful all your days,” Caelen drawled.
His words stiffened her spine and she couldn’t call back the glare as she speared him with her gaze.
“And what exactly are you promising me?”
His pale green eyes stroked coolly over her, assessing and then lifting as if he found nothing of import. She didn’t like that look. He’d all but dismissed her.
“You’ll gain my protection and the respect due a lady of your station.”
She whispered the words, and she’d have given anything not to have let them slip. It was no wonder she’d been left wanting, though. Ewan McCabe clearly adored his wife, Mairin, and Alaric had just defied king and country to be with the woman he loved—effectively casting Rionna aside in the process.
Not that she was angry. She dearly loved Keeley, and Keeley deserved happiness. That a man as strong and handsome as Alaric had publicly proclaimed his love for Keeley gladdened Rionna’s heart.
But it also brought home how sterile her own marriage would be.
Caelen made a sound of exasperation. “Exactly what is it that you want, lass?”
She raised her chin and stared back at him every bit as cool. “Nothing. ’Tis enough. I’ll have your respect and your regard. I won’t be needing your protection, though.”
His eyebrow rose. “Is that so?”
“Aye. I can see to my own protection.”
Caelen chuckled and more laughter rose from the assembled men. “Say your vows, lass. We don’t have all day. The men are hungry. They’ve been waiting a feast for nearly a fortnight now.”
Agreement rumbled through the room and her cheeks burned. This was her wedding day and she wouldn’t be rushed. Who cared about the food and the men’s stomachs?
As if sensing that she was working herself into a righteous fury, Caelen reached over, snagged her hand, and pulled her up next to his side until his thigh burned into hers through the material of her dress.
“Father,” Caelen said respectfully, “if you’ll tell the lass what she needs to say again.”
Rionna fumed the entire way through the recitation. Tears pricked her eyelids but she couldn’t even say why. It wasn’t as if she and Alaric had been a love match any more than she and Caelen were. The entire idea of wedding one of the McCabe brothers had been hatched by her father and embraced by the McCabes and the king himself.
She was but a pawn to be used and discarded.
She sighed and then shook her head. It was ridiculous to be this maudlin. There were worse things. She should be happy. She’d rediscovered the sister of her heart in Keeley, who was now happily married even if she faced a long recovery in the days ahead. And Rionna’s father would no longer be laird of their clan.
She chanced another look only to see her father throw back yet another goblet of ale. She supposed she couldn’t entirely blame him for being so deep into his cups. His entire way of life was gone in a moment’s time. But she couldn’t muster any regret.
Her clan could be great—would be great—under the right leadership. It had never been her father. He’d weakened the McDonald name until they’d been reduced to begging for the aid and alliance of a stronger clan.
Her free hand curled into a tight fist at her side. It had been her dream to restore their glory. To shape the soldiers into a formidable fighting force. Now it would be Caelen’s task and she would be relegated to a position of observation rather than the participation she craved.