Mara’s long, flowing hair trailed her back in one thick braid. Loose strands fell in silken tendrils over the smooth, creamy skin of her face. Her eyes, the color of glorious emeralds, reflected golden flecks of fire behind dark feathery lashes. For a brief moment, time suspended as he stood in her presence. Then her perfect lips parted and spoke his name again, yanking him back to conscious reality.
He blinked and stammered on his reply. “M-m’lady.” A prickling heat rose from his chest and up his neck as he humbly bowed before her. It was then that he noticed how ridiculous he must have looked in his dripping wet attire. “’Tis a pleasure to see you after all these years.”
Mara’s face lit up like a flame, oblivious to the others beside him, and she hurled herself into his arms. He stumbled backward a step but recovered quickly as he enveloped her delicate body in an embrace.
When he looked up, all eyes rested on him and he became painfully aware of his actions, which might or might not have been appropriate. He released his arms from around her back and offered his sincerest apology. “I should’ve warned you I was soaking wet. I’m afraid your gown is ruined.”
Mara smoothed her hands over the bodice and waved him off. “’Tis only water.” She regarded his face more thoroughly now, and a giddy laugh escaped her. “I cannot believe you’re here.” She then realized he wasn’t the only man in the room. “Angus, please, forgive me. I didn’t see you there, else I would have greeted you properly.”
Angus bowed deeply. “Trust me when I tell you that your greeting has surpassed all others we’ve received thus far.”
Mara regarded the rest of the men in her company, and her smile slowly faded. “What brings you all here?” Initially, she directed the question to Angus, but soon turned her attention to Breandán when the pieces of the puzzle didn’t fit into place. “Breandán?”
He felt the ground wobble beneath his feet. He hated to be the one to tell her about her father’s failing health. Why couldn’t Angus do it?
Nevan stepped forward. “It seems your father would like to see you.”
Mara’s attention fluttered back and forth between the men. “Why does my father want to see me?”
Breandán noted the acidity in Mara’s voice. Why wouldn’t a father want to see his daughter? From what he remembered years ago, Mara had reciprocated his love. He’d seen it with his own eyes. Had things changed between them?
“Your father loves you,” he said, hoping he wasn’t too presumptuous.
Mara shot a quick look toward Angus. “Does he? I fail to see it.”
Breandán eyed Cathal’s heralds. Judging by the way they fidgeted like sinners in a church, he knew that something significant enough to leave Mara heartbroken had occurred. “Forgive me, Mara, but I’m ignorant to anything that has transpired between you and your father since we parted ways. What I do know is that he’s not well and wishes to see you.”
A single tear slipped from her eye, but she quickly wiped it away. “Is he dying?”
Breandán glanced at Nevan for support. Or perhaps some answers. “He is.”
Nevan stepped forward and clutched Mara’s shoulders from behind. “Cathal has refused to see his daughter, despite the loss of her husband and the birth of her son.”
Breandán recoiled. “Why would he do that?”
“I cannot speak for Cathal. You would have to ask him.”
To deny his own daughter without reason was utterly spineless. Though, in truth, it didn’t surprise him much. Cathal Mac Conor might have been a king he was supposed to serve, but he never cared for the man or the lengths to which he’d gone to get what he wanted.
Breandán kicked himself for being so blinded by his own desires that he didn’t see the scheme behind Cathal’s request. His king not only threatened to side with Mac Flann, but he used Breandán’s emotional attachment to Mara as a pawn to further his purpose. Once she found out what Cathal held over Breandán, she wouldn’t likely refuse.
Breandán remembered what his father had told him before he left. “A man always has a choice, no matter what he’s faced with or how far back he’s cornered. There’s always a choice." And he was making his now.
No one would manipulate Mara, especially her own father. No matter what strategic vise Cathal had placed on him, Breandán was not going to choose the wrong side again. He’d already done so once in his life with Domaldr, and it proved to be his biggest mistake. He wouldn’t play the ignorant fool again.
“I’m sorry that Cathal has treated you this way,” Breandán began, no longer referring to the deceitful, crafty king as her father. “I can only hope, since he’s on his deathbed, he’s come to his senses. However, if you decide you don’t wish to see him, I’ll not hold you to it.”
Angus flinched. “But, you have orders to bring her to him.”
“In light of what Cathal has done to Mara, those orders are no longer mine to carry out. Nor will I allow anyone to force her. This is her choice, and I stand by her decision, whatever that may be.”
“But she’s his daughter. She should know what her father has planned should you refuse his command.”
“You mean, what he has threatened to do, naught more.”
“However you chose to see it, Mara has a right to know.”
Breandán drew in a breath and adopted a commanding voice. “Angus, hold your tongue.”
“You’ve no authority over me, Breandán,”
“He may not,” Nevan interrupted, “but I do. Speak one more word, and I shall have you thrown from this isle before your next breath. You’re a guest in Mara’s home, and I remind you to act like one.”
Mara’s gaze lifted to meet Breandán’s, and she grasped his arm. She looked pale and unstable on her feet. Breandán reached for her and steadied her by the elbows. “Are you all right? You don’t look well.”
She touched her hand to her throat as beads of sweat clung to her skin. “I need some air.”
Nevan leaped forward and helped to stabilize her. “Indeed, you look quite distraught. Come, let’s step outside.” He flashed a stern look toward Angus before ushering her out the door.
Breandán, however, was not as merciful.