He made straight for the windows,
the mist-snakes retreating at his approach. “Pah! Do you see? Even they know when to cede defeat.”
Ronan resisted the urge to arch a brow. Seldom were the times the dread malaise didn’t withdraw when Valdar MacRuari entered
Loved by his clan or nae, the old chieftain’s fearsomeness could chase the shadows off the moon.
“Well?” he boomed, proving it.
“Man or mist, ’tis a wise soul who recognizes the time to depart.” Ronan watched the last finger of mist slip over the window
ledge. “I, too, have news —”
“Naught so joyous as mine.” His grandfather swelled his chest, then turned a bushy-browed look on the large-eyed serving lass
hovering at his elbow. “If Anice will stir herself to pour our wine, we’ll drink to your good fortune.”
The girl stood with her gaze on the windows, her hands shaking so badly, blood-red wine sloshed over the rim of the wine jug,
staining her skirts.
Daughter of one of the cattle herders, she’d swoon of fright if she weren’t soon returned to her parents’ cot-house. It was
a humble dwelling of turf, stones, and thatch on the outermost edges of MacRuari lands and far away enough to be spared the
worst of Castle Dare’s shadows.
Taking the ewer from her, Ronan dismissed her with a nod. The instant she scurried from the room, he poured two measures of
the potent wine and handed a cup to his grandfather. “Joyous will be that slip of a lassie when you tell her we no longer
need her services.” His gaze steady on his grandfather, he took a sip of wine. “Even more joyous will be calling her back
when I return. If everything goes to plan.”
“When you return?” Valdar’s brows flew upward. “My eternal soul, laddie, you canna be leaving. Not with your new bride set
to arrive on the morrow.”
Ronan almost choked on his wine. “My new
“Your new bride!” Valdar thundered, narrowing his most piercing stare on Ronan. “The maid you should’ve been wed to all along.
I’ve fetched her for you.”
“Then you shall have to unfetch her.”
“I think not.” Valdar’s stare went stubborn. “You need her.”
Ronan scowled at him. “I needed Matilda. She is the one who should be at my side, still. Cecilia met sorrow and doom as my
second wife. I’ll no’ have another.”
His grandfather snorted. Adjusting his sword’s wide, finely tooled shoulder-belt, he took a deep breath, clearly readying
for a sparring match. “You’d barely grown a beard when you wed Matilda. She was comely, aye. A right fetching lassie. But
she lacked the steel and wit for life at Dare. Your passion for her would’ve dimmed had she lived more than a few days beyond
A muscle twitched in Ronan’s jaw. “She should have lived and would have, had she not wed me. Cecilia —”
“Cecilia was a frail wee sparrow.” Valdar thrust out his chin, daring him to deny it. “There be some who say she is better
off at peace than suffering the fevers that gripped her each winter.”
Ronan’s scowl deepened. “She died in childbed, no’ of a fever.”
“As do many women in these Highlands every day, God rest their sainted souls.”
“Cecilia was one too many.”
Going to the fire, Ronan tossed two rich black peat bricks onto the flames. Thinking,
about his two late wives cut off his breath and squeezed his innards as if a giant hand had suddenly reached up from hell
to clamp a great white-hot fist around him.
“Showing me your back won’t change a thing.” His grandfather’s voice rose with all his lung power. “You, Castle Dare, and
all within these walls need you wedded to a suitable bride. Only then will the darkness ebb.”
“Say you?” Ronan turned around, his temples throbbing so fiercely he wondered his head didn’t split in twain. “I say — again
— I’ll no’ take a third wife.” Ignoring Valdar’s spluttering, he