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Michelle Willingham

Her Warrior King

Her Warrior King

Series: The MacEgan Brothers - Book #2


Click here to read Chapter 1

Every woman considered stealing a horse and running away on her wedding day, didn’t she?

Isabel de Godred fought the restlessness building within her. It was her duty to obey her father. She understood it, even as she clenched the crimson silk of her kirtle and eyed the stables. 

In her heart, she knew an escape was futile. Even if she did manage to leave the grounds, her father would send an army after her. Edwin de Godred was not known for his tolerance. Everything was done according to his orders, and woe to anyone who disobeyed.

The marriage might not be so bad, part of her reasoned. Her betrothed could be an amiable, attractive man who would allow her the freedom to run his estates.

She closed her eyes. No, highly unlikely. Otherwise Edwin de Godred would have paraded the suitor before her, boasting about the match. She knew little about the man, save his Irish heritage and rank. 

“Are you ready, my lady?” her maidservant Clair asked. With a conspiratorial smile, she added, “Do you suppose he’s handsome?”

“No. He won’t be.” Toothless and aging. That’s how the man would look. Panic boiled inside her stomach, and Isabel’s steps felt leaden. Her rash escape plan was looking more and more promising.

“But surely—“

Isabel shook her head. “Clair, Father wouldn’t even let me meet the man at our betrothal. He’s probably half-demon.”

Her maid crossed herself and frowned. “I heard he’s one of the Irish kings. He must be wealthy beyond our imaginings.”

“He isn’t the High King.” And thank the saints for that. Though she might rule over the tribe, at least she did not have the burden of ruling over a country. As they walked down the wooden staircase outside the castle donjon, she wondered how Edwin had arranged a betrothal in such a short time. He’d gone to aid the Earl of Pembroke’s campaign only last summer. 

“If I could, I’d take your place,” Clair mused with a dreamy smile.

“And if I could, I’d give him to you.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible. 

Isabel’s imagination conjured up a monster. The man must be unbearable to require such secrecy. Though she knew it was unfair to pass a judgment before she’d met her intended, she couldn’t help but imagine the worst.

“You’ll be mistress of your own kingdom,” Clair sighed. “Imagine it. You’re to become a queen.”

“I suppose.” And that added even more fear to the forthcoming marriage. What did she know about being a queen? She knew how to run an estate and make it profitable, but that was all. 

Her father Edwin de Godred, Baron of Thornwyck, awaited her outside the chapel among a small crowd of guests and servants. Tall and thin, his graying beard and mustache were neatly groomed. He inspected her with a glance, and Isabel felt like a mare about to be traded. She resisted the urge to show her teeth for inspection.

No, it did not bother her to leave this place. But what should she expect from the Irish king? Was he kind? Cruel? Her nerves wound tighter.

“Is he here?” she asked her father, staring at the men waiting near the church.

Edwin gripped her cold fingers, keeping them in a tight grasp as he escorted her to the church. “You will meet him soon enough,” he said. “My men sighted his traveling party a few hours ago.”

“I would rather have met him at our betrothal,” she muttered. Her father only grunted a response.

Isabel shivered. Until she saw this man with her own eyes, she’d not surrender her escape plans. With each step, she felt more alone. Her sisters were not here to lend their support. Edwin had not permitted it, and it had hurt more than she’d thought it would.

When they arrived in the courtyard, a well-dressed man was speaking to the priest. He had little hair, save a snowy fringe around his pate. 

“Is that him?” she asked. Her father didn’t answer. He seemed preoccupied, his gaze focused into the distance. 

The older man swallowed hard and wiped his palms upon the hem of his tunic. He glanced around as if searching for someone. 

Isabel sent up a silent prayer, her cheeks flaming. God, please save me from this marriage, she thought, even as her father’s hand closed over her wrist.

A moment later, she heard the sound of a horse approaching. Startled, she glanced up at the heavens. “That was quick.” 

“What is it?” Edwin demanded.

“Nothing.” Isabel forced a neutral expression onto her face, but the rumbling sound intensified. Her father offered a strange smile, and he motioned for the priest to wait. Moments later, the elderly man stepped among the other guests. So he was not her bridegroom. 

The noise grew louder, and her father’s hand moved to his sword hilt. A few guests looked to Edwin, the women glancing around with uncertainty. The priest turned to Isabel, a questioning look on his face.

Isabel froze. There, riding toward the guests, a man emerged. His clothes were little better than rags, dried mud coating the hem of his cloak. And yet he rode a sleek black horse, a stallion worthy of a knight.

His sword was drawn, as if to cut down any man who dared oppose him. Guests scrambled to get away from the horse, several women shrieking. 

Isabel’s heart leaped into her throat, but she held herself straight, refusing to scream. Instead she darted behind one of her father’s men, a soldier armed with a bow and arrows. 

What was wrong with them? Her father’s soldiers hadn’t moved, nor released a single arrow. As a single rider, the intruder was an easy target. Would no one stop him?

“Do something!” she shouted, but the soldiers ignored her. 

The man drew his horse to a halt and dismounted, sheathing his sword. Isabel’s breath caught in her lungs, a strange sense of foreboding sliding over her. No. This could not be him.

Black hair flowed down his shoulders, his granite eyes burning into hers. He reminded her of a savage barbarian, bold and fearless. He wore a strange garment, a long tunic of blue that draped to his knees, and dun-colored leggings. A crimson ragged cloak hung across his shoulders, pinned with a narrow iron brooch the length of her forearm. Gold bands encircled his upper arms, denoting a noble rank. 

Her father’s calm acceptance of the interruption could mean only one thing. The barbarian was her betrothed husband. Isabel bit her lip, fighting back the fear and the desire to flee.

Edwin confirmed it with his words. “Isabel, this is Patrick MacEgan, King of Laochre.”

She didn’t want to believe him. While the barbarian’s horse and sword suggested a high rank, the man looked as though he’d come from a battlefield rather than a throne. And where were his escorts, his servants? Kings did not travel alone. Her suspicions darkened.

The king dismounted, and Isabel kept a clear eye on his horse. Now, more than ever, she longed to escape. Perhaps she could seek sanctuary in the abbey. There was a slim chance she might make it.

“You are Lady Isabel de Godred?” he asked. The lilting accent in his voice sounded foreign in the Norman tongue. 

“I am.” She stared at the man. “Is this the way you usually arrive at a wedding? By trying to kill the guests?” 

“Isabel,” her father warned. She stilled her voice, fighting back the fear that pounded inside her. His steel eyes studied her dispassionately, and her gaze shifted to his hands. He could tear her apart with them, no doubt.

The barbarian king blinked a second. The fierce expression returned to his face. “Let us get the deed done.”

Not if she could help it. He wasn’t at all half-demon. Full-blooded demon, more like. If she ever intended to make an escape, now was her only opportunity. 

Isabel dashed toward MacEgan’s horse. She gripped the saddle, trying to haul herself atop the creature before strong arms surrounded her like a shield. Sinewy muscles possessed her in a prison of strength. 

Though she fought him, the king lifted her down as though she weighed no more than a fly. He kept her pinioned against his chest. His body heat warmed her cool skin, and the top of her head reached just below his shoulders. In his stance, she could feel the caged fury. 

“I cannot wed you,” she insisted. This was not the sort of amiable husband who would sit upon a throne and let her handle the household. He was the sort of man who would lock her in chains and feed her body to the crows.

No one listened to her protests. Father Thomas began murmuring the words to the marriage rite. The king took her hand in his, and blood roared in Isabel’s ears. 

This could not be happening. This man would steal her away from her homeland, to the island of Erin where she had no family. She’d never see her sisters again. Pain twisted within her skin, and she held back tears.

His hand squeezed hers tighter, and she caught the warning look. Anger rose up within her, permeating and harsh. What had she done to be punished with a husband such as this? 

The priest was waiting for her vow. Isabel shook her head and her throat closed up. “I will not wed you.”

“You’ve no more choice than I, a chara.” 

Isabel tried to break free of him, but Patrick overpowered her. “You wish to have your freedom, do you not?”

She made no reply. What did he mean?

“Agree to this marriage, and it shall be yours.”

She did not believe him. Every inch of this man was uncivilized. Her father sent her an icy glare. “Look around you, Isabel. If you do not wed the King of Laochre, there is none other who will have you. What man desires a disobedient wife? You bring shame upon yourself.”

Hot tears gathered in her eyes but Isabel held her ground. The wedding guests appeared uncomfortable. 

Patrick softened his grip upon her wrist. Lowering his voice, he brought his mouth to her ear. His breath made her shiver.

“Your father holds the lives of my people under his control: men, women, and children. The only way to save them is if I wed you. And wed you I shall, a chara, be assured of it.” 

A single tear slid free, staining her cheek. The truth broke through, unwanted. Her father’s conquest in Erin had made her into a bargaining pawn, her own wishes meaningless. This was a political alliance, and the king’s rigid expression made it clear he would not accept a refusal.

Was he telling the truth? Would children and women die if she refused? She turned and studied her father. In his eyes she saw no mercy. 

She looked closer at Patrick MacEgan. Past the anger she saw exhaustion. And a hint of sadness. If he was right, if innocents would die without her acceptance . . . She closed her eyes, knowing she could not escape her fate. In that moment the chains of obligation tightened around her. 

When the priest asked for her vow again, she forced herself to nod aye. Within moments, the rite had ended. Her husband brushed a kiss of peace upon her cheek, and Isabel clenched her teeth to keep from screaming.

All throughout the Mass, Patrick kept her hand imprisoned in his. She barely heard the priest’s words, her head spinning with disbelief. So fast. Wedded to a man she didn’t know, a king who lived a world apart from her homeland.

Afterwards, they walked into the inner bailey. Isabel’s stomach roiled at the scent of the wedding feast prepared. Peacocks, a roasted pig, and all manner of exotic fare awaited them. She couldn’t imagine touching a bite of it. Celebrating was the furthest thing from her mind.

Patrick stopped in front of his horse. “We leave now. Say farewell to your father for you will not see him for a long time.”

His command caught her unawares. “But my belongings and dowry,” she protested. “The wagons—“

“We’ll send for them later.”

Isabel cast a glance toward Edwin de Godred. No longer did she see the face of her father, a man she had tried desperately to please. Now she saw a man willing to sell her into marriage with the Devil, should it further his own ambitions. 

Her father moved forward. “You cannot depart until the marriage is consummated.”

“I have met our agreement.” Patrick’s expression hardened, and his palm moved down to the hollow of her spine. Isabel stiffened at the mark of possession. “You need not doubt the rest. But it will be on my terms, not yours.”

Lord Thornwyck deliberated before at last handing over a scroll of sealed parchment. “If she is not carrying an heir by the time I return to Laochre, I will require evidence that she is no longer a virgin.”

Isabel’s face burned with mortification. Now it seemed they viewed her as a brood mare. Terror lanced her at the idea of submitting to the Irish king. Though he’d granted her a reprieve from the ceremonial bedding, she had no doubt he would want to share her bed later this night. Her skin prickled beneath the touch of his hand upon her body. The awareness of him only heightened her fears.

“At Lughnasa, we’ll expect you,” Patrick replied. He did not await a response, but lifted her atop his horse. He swung up behind her, spurring the stallion into a gallop. 

The horse raced onward while strong arms confined her in an iron grip. Neither her father, nor his men, made any move to stop him. Isabel’s last thought was, God, this was not what I meant when I begged you to save me from this marriage.

***

Patrick kept the woman in a firm grip as they rode through the fields. He needed to put distance between them and Thornwyck’s fortress. Though the Baron had let him leave freely, he didn’t trust the Normans to keep their word. 

Isabel de Godred had startled him. He didn’t know what he had expected, but it certainly wasn’t a wife who’d accused him of trying to murder the guests. He’d hoped for a plain-faced, biddable maiden who would follow his orders. Instead, fate had granted him a beautiful woman who looked as though she’d never obeyed a command in her life. Even now her body tensed against his, as though she were contemplating escape.

In silent response, he tightened his hold. Without Isabel’s presence, he could not free his people. The orders signed by Thornwyck were not enough. The Norman captain had to see her for himself. 

Patrick stared at the horizon, wondering if he would glimpse his brothers. Though he’d ordered them to remain beyond the Welsh border, he suspected they hadn’t. During the wedding Mass, he’d caught a slight motion to his left. But when he’d turned, there was no one there.

Then again, his brothers were well-trained. Like shadows, if they didn’t want to be seen, no one would find them. The fear of anything happening to his family added yet another rope of tension to this tangled web.

Brutal memories slashed at his heart, of the children who had died in the fires. His brother’s wife, stolen and killed by the Norman invaders. So much loss. And all because of Thornwyck and the Earl of Pembroke’s forces. He could hardly think about the woman he held in his arms, for she was one of them. 

After several hours, he drew his horse Bel to a stop. He chose a spot near a stream, out in the open where Isabel could not run. He lifted her down. “Rest for a moment and slake your thirst. Fill this in the stream, and then we’ll ride farther.”

She accepted the water bag. “Why did you wed me?” Eyes the color of polished walnut gazed at him steadily. “You said the lives of your people depended on this marriage.”

Not a tear fell from her eyes, nor did she scream. Quiet and pensive, she met his attention openly.

“You were part of the surrender terms when your father conquered our fortress. If I didn’t wed you, he swore to kill all of the survivors.”

She blanched. “I don’t believe he would really have done that.”

He didn’t know what kind of sheltered walls had veiled her eyes, but he refused to condone Edwin de Godred’s actions. “Believe it.”

She took a few steps toward the stream, her steps faltering. He doubted if she was accustomed to riding for long distances. If she were any other woman, he’d likely stop for the night.

But she wasn’t. She was a Norman and not to be trusted. As long as he remained upon English soil, he had no way of knowing whether Thornwyck would keep their agreement. Even now, his people might be suffering. Three dozen Norman soldiers held them prisoner.

He wasn’t about to waste time with wedding feasts, nor with bedding the woman. The sooner they reached Eíreann, the better.

Patrick knelt beside the stream and lifted the cold water to his lips. Isabel sat nearby, her hands folded in her lap.

The wind skimmed against her veil, lifting it to reveal a length of golden hair. With full lips and high cheekbones, her brown eyes illuminated her face. For a moment, he almost pitied her. No woman should have to endure a marriage like this one.

She handed him the water bag. “What am I to call you? Your Majesty? My sovereign lord?”

“Patrick will do.” Though he had earned the rank of petty king, reigning over his tribe, it had been hardly a year. He had not yet grown accustomed to being their leader. He didn’t know how his father and eldest brother had shouldered the responsibility so easily. Every decision he made, he questioned. Especially the agreement with the Baron of Thornwyck.

“You promised me my freedom. Do you intend to give it to me now?”

He shook his head. “When we reach Eíreann. I give you my word.” 

“And is your vow worth anything?”

He folded his arms. It was becoming apparent why Thornwyck had offered his daughter as part of the agreement. “Are you always this difficult?”

“Always.” 

Her bluntness almost made him smile. “Good. I’ve no need for a spineless woman.” He lifted her atop the stallion once more. A flash of irritation crossed her face, but she made no complaint. 

She had courage; he’d grant her that. Even still, he could never forget what her people had done to his. Worse, the marriage was only part of the surrender terms. The rest of the treaty made slavery seem inviting. The price he’d paid for the lives of his people was far too high. 

As he urged his horse onward, he could only pray that his tribe could endure what lay ahead.

***

Isabel clung to the hope that somehow the improper marriage was not binding. She knew better than to try an escape. Without a horse of her own and supplies, she wouldn’t survive. Not unless she could find someone to help her.

Edwin de Godred had made it clear that he wanted this alliance. He didn’t seem to care that his youngest daughter was now bound to a foreigner, and an uncivilized one at that.

Why had she ever agreed to this? She should have listened to her instincts instead of believing Patrick’s tale about captive women and children.

They rode through a forest, the road curving in the midst of fallen leaves. Stately oaks and rowans crowned the path, their branches weaving a canopy high above them. The landscape of her homeland faded into a sea of green and rich earth. 

Near the Welsh border, slate gray mountains wore a halo of afternoon sunlight. They rose above the landscape, beautiful and stark. Flocks of sheep dotted the hills, flecks of white against the sea of green. The spring air cooled her skin, a reminder of the coming night. 

Perhaps it would be the last time she saw England. She tried to quell the panic. You must not be afraid, she told herself. Keep your wits about you. Erin cannot be so bad.

But her stray thoughts kept returning to the wedding night. She glanced down at MacEgan’s hands, roughened with labor. They were not at all smooth like a nobleman’s. His forearms controlled the horse’s reins, revealing a subdued strength. 

“Night approaches,” she ventured. “Do you plan to ride in the darkness?”

There was no reply. She tried again, raising her voice. 

“Perhaps when it has grown too dark to see our path, a tree will knock you senseless. Then I could run away.”

Again, silence. The man might as well have been a statue from his stoic demeanor. 

“Or if I am fortunate, wolves might devour us.” She pondered the thought, imagining other ideas that could make this day any worse.

“You talk overmuch, a chara. In a few hours, we camp for the night.” 

Isabel clamped her mouth shut. The thought of stopping for the night, alone with this man, unsettled her. Even now, riding against the heat of his body, kindled her nervousness. He sheltered her, confining her in arms chiseled with a warrior’s strength. 

Would it be that unbearable to feel his body joining with hers? Her maidservant had sighed over the pleasure of lying in a man’s arms, but Isabel remained unconvinced. Her warrior husband had not a trace of gentleness. She dreaded the thought of sharing a bed with him.

After a time, Patrick drew the horse to a stop. The lavender sky swelled with shadowy clouds. She could feel moisture gathering in the air. Ahead, she saw no shelter, only more trees. 

Her husband moved with a fluid grace, pulling her down from the horse. “Do not try to run.” 

She almost laughed. “And where would I go?”

“Wherever you planned to travel when you tried to steal my horse.” He took her hands and led her into the woods. From his pack of supplies, he brought out a pile of heavy cloth which unfolded into a small tent. It was hardly large enough for a single person, let alone both of them. He finished setting up the tent and gestured toward it. “Wait here. I’ll hunt for food.”

Isabel glanced at the swelling clouds, hoping he meant for her to sleep within the tent alone. She started toward the shelter when Patrick stopped her. His gaze held hers, a predatory man who would not show mercy. “You should rest until I return. We’ve more riding to do before we stop for the night.”

Isabel gathered her composure. “Don’t you have any supplies here? There’s no need to hunt.” She glanced up at the twilight horizon, more than a little fearful. What if he abandoned her in this place?

Patrick’s face was close enough to feel his warm breath upon her cheek. “I’ll come back for you soon.”

Her body betrayed her with the warmth that flooded through her. She forced herself to look away. 

He deposited her inside the tent and tossed a length of wool at her. “Cover yourself with the brat to stay warm.”

As he started towards the horse, her fear doubled. What if a thief or a murderer came after her? She would be alone, defenseless. “I would like a weapon,” she added hastily. “Please.”

He turned and shot her a look of disbelief. “For what purpose?”

“In case someone attacks. Or an animal.” Isabel crawled outside the tent and pointed to his quiver. “I know how to use a bow and arrows.”

“No weapons. I do not intend to go far, and I’d rather you didn’t shoot me when I return.” He drew up his hood and mounted the stallion, disappearing into the woods.

At that, the rain began. It was a hard, pounding rain that soaked through the silk of her kirtle. A thickness rose in the back of her throat as Isabel huddled inside the tent. Rivulets of cold rain spattered against the heavy cloth, and she cursed Patrick for bringing her here. She cursed her father for arranging this marriage. She cursed herself for not throwing herself off the horse when Patrick had stolen her.

Mud caked her lower limbs as the rain pounded harder. Her veil clung to her neck in an icy grasp. In the distance, she heard an eerie howling noise. Hastily she sent up another silent prayer.

The last thing she needed was for her new husband to truly be eaten by wolves.

Summary:

He was given a choice—wed a Norman bride or watch his people die.

King Patrick agreed to wed the daughter of his enemy to save the lives of his people — though he swore he would never bed her. Yet Isabel de Godred has no intention of being cast aside by her new Irish husband…

She tries to make the best of her marriage and find a place for herself among the MacEgans. But the tribe refuses to accept her as their queen, and neither will her proud warrior king.

Despite Patrick’s vow of celibacy, there is no denying the forbidden desire rising between them when they are alone. For if he dares to love Isabel, he risks his very throne…
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yvonne arnold

Her Warrior King

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