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Connor tugged desperately at Ilysa's clothes, trying to touch more of her skin. He had no idea how they had gotten on the bed and didn't care. As he covered her with hot, passionate kisses, his heart beat so hard he thought it might burst from his chest.
He suspected Ilysa's young husband had been the sort who fumbled in the dark with little notion of how to please a woman. For having been married, Ilysa seemed inexperienced. Inexplicably, this was just one more thing about her that drove him wild.
Her every surprised squeak of pleasure and low moan from the back of her throat sent him reeling. She had a natural passion that left him breathless. He felt the self-control that always seemed such a part of her crack, and he could not wait for it to shatter beneath his hands. He wanted to hear her moans and watch her face when she came in his arms.
Her skin was soft as silk. He wanted to taste every inch of it and to make love to her slowly in a dozen ways. But not now. Not this first time, when he needed her so badly. He would take her fast and hard, pounding into her until she screamed her pleasure and he exploded.
When he touched her center, her body jerked, but she was hot and wet for him. She tossed her head and writhed against him, exciting him so much that he feared he would come against her side like an overexcited fifteen-year-old.
He rolled on top of her, and she felt glorious beneath him. Though he kept his weight on his elbows, she was so slight that he feared he would crush her with the violence of his desire.
"'Tis been such a long time since I had a woman," he said, looking into her eyes. "I can't wait much longer."
"I've waited forever for you," she whispered.
Connor didn't know what she meant by those words, but she was pulling on his hips. His body understood that and was screaming for release.
His shaft found her opening with an unerring sense of direction. He squeezed his eyes shut as he forced himself to slide just the tip in. O shluagh, she was so tight. He tried to go slowly, but she felt so good that she was going to kill him. Then she lifted her hips again and destroyed his last shred of control. His ears rang from the surge of pleasure as he thrust deep inside her.
That was the last thing he expected to hear. Through the pulsing need that shook him to his core, the realization broke through that he had felt something give way inside her. A tear.
Oh, Jesu, no, she's a virgin! The words blazed through his head, but it was too late. He was already deep inside her.
He tried to make himself pull out, but Ilysa held on to him as if he were saving her from drowning. Need thrummed through him, straining his control like a rope taut to breaking. Her legs tightened around him, urging him on. Then all he knew was the sensation of her tight, wet heat around him and her soft gasps in his ear as he pumped into her again and again. He exploded in a violent burst of unbearable rapture that left him stunned.
As soon as he could gather himself, he rolled off her and covered his eyes with his arm.
"Dear God. What have I done?"
Guilt crashed down on him. He had violated every rule he had made for himself. The one about not risking having a child outside of his marriage was the least of them. Even before he was chieftain, he never took innocent virgins to bed.
And worse, this virgin was his best friend's sister. Duncan's last words to him burned in his ears: See that it doesn't happen with my sister. Loyalty mattered more to him than anything, and he had violated his friend's trust. He had violated Ilysa's trust, too. She was his responsibility.
As chieftain, he had blatant offers all the time from women who wanted the status of being the chieftain's lover, or better yet, of having his child. For two and a half long years, he had resisted every attempt to seduce him, only to fall to the subtle charms of an innocent lass.
A coldness gripped his heart as he realized he had not pulled out before spilling his seed. It had not even crossed his mind. But then, his mind had played no part in this at all.
"Why did ye not tell me ye were a virgin?" he asked. "I would not have done this if I'd known."
"That's why I didn't tell ye," Ilysa said in a soft voice.
He should be furious with her. Instead, he was just confused. And beneath the confusion, he was foolishly pleased that she had chosen him to be her first lover. What an idiot he was.
Why had she wanted him to take her virginity? Did she hope to bear a chieftain's child? Was she simply curious? Was it because she trusted him, as he trusted her? Or did she fancy herself in love with him? He groaned. God help him, that would make what he'd done even worse.
"You were married," he said. "How could ye be untouched?"
Ach, no, he'd made her cry. Could he do nothing right? He pulled her into his arms and kissed her hair.
"I didn't think ye would regret it so soon," Ilysa said in an unnaturally high voice.
"I should regret it."
Ilysa leaned her head back to look at him with her big, brown eyes. "Why?"
"Because I cannot wed you," he said, brushing back a strand of hair that had come loose from her braid. "You're the last woman in the clan I should have bedded."
"I know ye can't marry me," she said.
Connor sat up straight, suddenly remembering the guards outside his door. How long had he and Ilysa been in here?
"We must get ye out of here before anyone suspects," he said as he leaped from the bed.
It was too late to save her virginity, but he could protect her from having everyone in the castle talking behind their hands about her sleeping with the chieftain. Duncan was right. Though she had been alone with him in his chamber many times before, men looked at her differently now. Connor should not even have closed the door.
After throwing on his clothes, he put his arm around Ilysa's shoulders to help her from the bed. Another wave of guilt swamped him when he saw the swath of blood marring the perfect whiteness of her thigh.
"Wait here," he said and brought her a wet cloth.
After she wiped off the blood, he lifted her to the floor and helped her straighten her gown. Again, Connor wondered how much time had passed and if the guards had heard anything that would make them suspect what had happened.
What had happened here? He wished he knew. She had not answered his question about how she could still be a virgin or why she had deliberately not told him, but now was not the time to press her.
When he put his arm around her and started toward the door, Ilysa's legs wobbled. Connor swallowed, remembering how hard he had thrust into her.
"I'm so sorry, Ilysa," he said.
She stared straight ahead, her expression fixed, and he knew she was trying not to weep.
Her first time should have been gentle and loving. God help him, in his rush to have her, he hadn't even taken off her clothes. Of all that he had done wrong, taking her like that was his biggest regret.
* * *
As soon as Ilysa barred her door, she leaned against it and sank to the floor. If only Connor had not ruined it all by regretting it as soon as it was over. She covered her face. For a short time, Connor had wanted her with a fevered passion that was far beyond anything she had imagined or hoped for.
And she had imagined it countless times and hoped for it every single day since he returned from France.
Yet she had never guessed how amazing it would be. When he pulled her into his arms, she felt overwhelmed at first - by the sheer size of him, the press of his hard-muscled chest, and the force of his desire. But when he lost himself, kissing her as if he would die if he could not have her, it was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her. Everywhere he touched her, he set off magical sparks. Her skin still tingled, and she ached inside with her need for him.
She had known he might be disappointed, or even angry, afterward, but she hadn't cared. It hurt when he took her virginity, but she hadn't care about that, either.
Their joining engendered such an intense feeling of oneness that she could have wept for joy. When he tried to break away at once, she simply could not bear it. She locked her legs around him and dug her fingers into his arms, refusing to let him go. She had been right to fear that once she released him, she might never hold him again.
When Connor began moving inside her again, she felt sore. At the same time, unexpected sensations spread through her like rings from a rock thrown in a pond. In those precious moments while they were joined, Connor was utterly and completely hers. His burdens were forgotten, the needs of the clan set aside, and there was nothing but the two of them. Her heart soared as he cried out and they were one in a glorious passion.
And then Connor rolled off her. Dear God, what have I done?
How could he say that after the extraordinary thing that had just occurred between them? Perhaps it was only extraordinary to her. Or was making love always like that for him? The question flitted across her mind, but she could not let herself think of Connor with anyone else.
Ilysa did not know how she could bear to face him tomorrow and see the regret in his eyes. Who knew where he got his sense of honor? Not from his parents. Regardless, it ran deep, and he had gone against it.
As for Ilysa, she loved Connor - with every breath and every heartbeat. Nothing could ever persuade her that what she had done was wrong.
* * *
Lachlan had left the castle immediately after the practice with Connor and was at his sister's before nightfall. Flora's busy household was overflowing with children, and he was surrounded as soon as he crossed the threshold. After pulling pigtails and tossing his nephews and nieces into the air, Lachlan waded through the chaos to his sister.
"Sorry I haven't been to visit in so long," he said as he kissed her cheek.
"So long as you've been fighting MacLeods, I'll forgive ye," she said with a smile and went back to stirring the pot that hung over the hearth. "Truly, I'm proud of ye."
That was both the reason he had avoided seeing her for weeks and the reason he had needed to come tonight.
"How's my favorite lass?" he said as picked up wee Brigid, the youngest of the large brood.
"Alive, thanks to our chieftain," his sister said. "Ach, that man's a saint."
"The chieftain?" Lachlan asked. "Why do ye say that?"
Flora waved him into a chair at the table, and he sat with Brigid on his lap.
"He came to a meeting here at the house," Flora said. "The MacLeods somehow found out he was here, and we all had to flee for our lives."
Lachlan's chest felt tight at the thought of his sister and her children in such danger. Flora proceeded to tell him how Connor had rescued Brigid, carried her to safety, and then diverted MacLeod warriors from where the family hid on the hillside. So this was where the attack had been the night before he first met Connor. In his mind's eye, he saw the chieftain limping across the field to the castle.
Lachlan leaned his elbow on the table and covered his eyes. Christ above. The man he had tried to kill had saved them.
"The chieftain should have run with the others rather than risk being caught for our sakes," Flora said. "He killed five MacLeod warriors who surely would have found us."
"Have ye told Father this?" Lachlan asked, though he doubted even saving Flora and the children would absolve the chieftain's family in his father's accounting. At least their father had not burdened Flora with their blood debt of honor, if only because she was born female.
"No, I haven't seen Father," Flora said and tossed some herbs into the pot she was stirring. "Malcom doesn't like me to go far from the house these days with the MacLeods and pirates about."
"Malcom is right," Lachlan said. "It would be better still if you and the children moved into the castle."
"I won't leave my home to the thieving MacLeods," Flora said, putting her free hand on her ample hip. Ever the vigilant mother, she shifted her gaze from Lachlan and called out, "Leave your brother alone, or I'll smack ye."
Lachlan sighed, knowing there was no use in trying to persuade her to leave. It was this very MacDonald stubbornness that would drive the MacLeods off their lands in the end.
"I hope Father isn't the reason you've put off marrying," his sister said, demonstrating once again that she could yell at her children and cook without losing her train of thought.
Lachlan loved her to death, but he was grateful that his older sister had so many children to order about. When they were growing up, she'd only had him.
"Just look at ye with my wee Brigid," Flora said, her eyes going all soft. "Ye need to find a lass who will be good to you and give ye bairns of your own."
"With the MacLeods breathing down our necks, this is no time to think of taking a wife and starting a family," Lachlan said, and wondered if the day would ever come when he could.
"Our new chieftain gives me great hope for our clan," Flora said. "May God watch over him."
How could Lachlan satisfy his father's right to vengeance and also protect his clan? When he started this, he believed that one chieftain would serve as well as another. But since then, he had taken both Hugh's and Connor's measure. He had suggested his sister go to Trotternish Castle, knowing Connor would fight to the death to defend the castle and everyone in it. If Hugh Dubh held the castle, Lachlan would not want his sister anywhere near it.
He looked down at his curly-headed niece who had fallen asleep in his lap with her thumb in her mouth. Hugh would never risk his life for wee Brigid.
In the end, that made all the difference to Lachlan. He would give up his father's battle over the past. From this moment forward, he would fight only for his clan's future, and he would do it at Connor's side.