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Authors: Mary Wine

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BOOK: Highland Spitfire
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“God save me,” Duana uttered, but the heavens were silent, leaving her staring at
Ailis. “Come along,” Duana said with a jerk of her head. She didn’t wait for a reply
but turned and started down a passageway. The sun was sinking, making the passageways
dark. No one had lit the lanterns hanging every so often from large iron hooks.

Ailis shivered.

It was a silly, childish response. Robertson Castle looked very much the same at twilight.
Yet tonight, it felt as though the darkness was creeping up the walls from the shadows
to engulf her.

“This will do ye well enough.”

Duana fit a key from the large ring that hung from her belt into a door and turned
it. Ailis tried to control the urge to gag.

The door had a lock on the outside of the room?

Her mind was racing, jumping to conclusions that were horrifying. The Head of House
grunted when the lock opened. “Go on with ye. I’ve supper to see to getting served.”

Duana was gone with a grumble.

At least she wasn’t going to be locked into the room.

Stop being childish.

The door had stopped half-open. She pushed it open and saw nothing but darkness. There
wasn’t a window in the room at all. The air was musty from the door being closed.
Moving inside, Ailis used the little light left in the passageway to investigate her
surroundings.

It was a modest room, to say the least. The reason for the lock became clear as she
looked at one side of the room and saw a long worktable there. On it were stored several
boxes and lengths of fabric. She moved over to it, smiling when she spotted a small
pewter plate with a pile of dry thatch on it. Lying on the edge of the plate was a
flint and a length of iron. A half-burned candle was there as well.

Ailis picked up the flint and struck it. Sparks flew, dropping down into the tinder.
She blew softly on it until a taper of smoke rose and at last a flame. She held the
candle to it, smiling when it lit.

“That’s better.”

Her voice echoed around the room, if she could really even call it a room.

Well, do nae call it a cell…

No, that would only clear the way for her resolve to crumble. And honestly, that was
all she had. So holding tight was essential.

On the other side of the room…

She smiled and walked across the bare stones that covered the floor to where a bed
frame sat. Rope was threaded through it to support a pallet.

Better than a hard cot…

Better?

She snorted. There was nothing better about the entire
room
.

And she wasn’t going to stomach it.

But when she turned, her hair fluttered like a wave. That stopped her. If she wanted
to be taken seriously, she’d need to look the part. At the moment, she looked like
a half-grown child. Certainly not the new mistress. Little wonder the Head of House
thought it a simple matter to humble her in such a way.

Well, Ailis would just have to set her mind to showing Duana that she was woman enough
to take her place.

She went back to the table and opened the boxes. One held an assortment of sewing
tools. Tiny silver needles that she couldn’t help but admire. There was also a fine
pair of cutting shears that had been recently sharpened. More than five dozen pins
and an entire box of fancy silk threads for embroidery.

Little wonder the room was locked.

The fabric was all linens. Lightweight, thicker ones, but all of it intended for shirts
and chemises. There was a box that had all the scraps folded neatly inside, to be
made up into caps or used for patching.

She opened another box and smiled when she spied a comb and small mirror. There were
hairpins too, and several cosmetics. Ailis ended up unrolling the pallet and sitting
down on it, because the only other item in the room was a stool she perched the mirror
on. Her hair was tangled from being down all day. It took some time to work the comb
through it and braid it.

By the time she’d finished, her temper had cooled. She replaced the items and sat
down on the bed to think. It was all well and good to march into the kitchens and
demand her place. Bhaic could hardly blame her.

Or would he?

Honestly, she knew very little about him. What did he want from their marriage?

Peace?

Aye. That was their common ground, yet it was a very undefined thing. Clearly Duana
didn’t think very highly of her presence. No, she would have to think hard and long
about how she was going to approach winning the respect of the MacPhersons. Demanding
her place was her right, but such would be expected.

Far better to earn her place. It would take time and resolve.

She giggled, rolling back onto the pallet as she dissolved into a fit of laughter.
Never, ever had she thought she’d be contemplating how to impress MacPhersons!

God had a very funny sense of humor, it seemed.

* * *

“I’ve been lied to.”

Bhaic turned his head as his half brother sat down next to him. Marcus was older than
him by six seasons and the product of a handfast that hadn’t made it to marriage.
His bonnet had one black feather raised on it, proclaiming his status as War Chief.

Marcus flattened his hand on the table. “I was told there was a Robertson in this
castle. A pockmarked hag, with blackened teeth and breath that could make a demon
faint—”

“Ailis is nae—”

“I am no’ finished, little brother,” Marcus interrupted. “She has hair as course as
straw and the shriveled mounds of a grandmother. So”—he pounded the tabletop—“where
is this creature you’ve been saddled with? Ye know I enjoy watching ye suffer.”

Shamus looked down the table. “Aye…where is the lass? Did ye leave her passed out
in yer bed already? She’ll have to be building up some strength if she’s going to
be yer wife.” His father chuckled. “Just like me, he is! A beast with the lassies.”

The captains at the table roared. Bhaic didn’t join them. Marcus was the only one
to notice, his brother’s face sobering.

“Mistress Duana,” Bhaic said.

The Head of House looked up from where she was directing two serving girls behind
his father.

“Where is me wife?”

Duana’s expression tightened. “I did nae know she needed shepherding. Forgive me.
Me attention was taken up by prayers for me murdered husband.”

There were grumbles in the hall from those listening in. The name Robertson was spat
out.

“My marriage is about making sure there is nae any more blood spilled.” Bhaic stood
up, his body tight with fury. “Now, what manner of welcome did ye give to me bride?”

Duana lost a little of her confidence, but only so far as to look somewhat less than
annoyed. It was a far cry from being ashamed of her lack of attention. “I took her
on down to one of the sewing cells. Making yer shirts is a fine place for a Robertson
to begin life here. She has much to atone for.”

There were chuckles in response. Bhaic sent a hard look toward some of his father’s
captains. They didn’t suffer his reprisal gracefully. One of them, known as Angus,
spit on the floor in open protest.

“There will be no more of that.” Shamus spoke solemnly. His father glared at his captains.
“She’s a lass. One doing her duty. So she’ll be given the respect such deserves.”

“If she has no’ the courage to face this hall, I say send her home before she whelps
weakling babes,” Angus said.

“I apologize for being late.”

The hall went quiet. Bhaic froze as Ailis made her way down the center aisle. His
father’s retainers glared at her.

Damned if she didn’t ignore them all.

Bhaic found himself watching her with pride. She made her way forward at a steady
pace, stopping only when she made it to the base of the stairs that led up to the
laird’s table. Her expression hardened just a tiny amount before she lowered herself.

His father grunted. “See now? There’s the lass.”

“A truly hideous hag…” Marcus muttered under his breath. “I’ll weep for yer fate.”

Ailis had put her hair up. Somehow, she looked more mature, more confident. When she
made it to his side, Bhaic realized she’d used a light coating of cosmetics too. Gone
was the allure of innocence that seemed to define her, and in its place was a promise
of something very enticing.

The scent of a woman.

“Weep for yer own fate, Marcus,” Bhaic said softly, “for she belongs to me.”

“And they call me bastard.”

* * *

War Chief.

Ailis knew the MacPhersons had one, and the man sitting next to Bhaic had two feathers
raised on the side of his bonnet, only one was black and the other white. Bhaic had
two white feathers facing up on his.

The man was slightly older than Bhaic. He made way for her and the two boys bringing
another chair to the long table. She sat down, feeling as if every motion she made
was too clumsy or loud. Everyone was watching her, judging her.

Well, let them. She was no coward.

But getting food down her throat was going to prove rather challenging. A smattering
of conversation started up, but everyone was clearly trying to hear what she said.

She looked over the hall and cringed. There had to be over three hundred retainers
alone. The massive keep made sense now—it was the only place they could all break
bread together. The MacPhersons were more powerful than her father ever suspected.
They sat at long tables on benches, as a continuous stream of women brought food in
from two passageways.

“I’ll have words with Duana about showing you to a cell.” Bhaic spoke softly, but
the moment he opened his lips, the conversation died. Proving she was correct to think
everyone was listening to them.

Well, she’d begin as she intended to continue.

No hint of weakness.

She replaced the goblet she’d been drinking from and offered him a smile. “Duana was
very kind.”

“Kind?” Bhaic questioned. “By showing ye to a cell?”

“Aye.” Ailis shot Angus a soft smile. “She neglected to lock me in when she departed.
Kind of her, as there wasn’t even a mouse in there to catch for supper.”

Bhaic stared at her for a long moment before his lips twitched. His father’s captains
choked on their amusement, even as they tried to cover up their lapse with coughs.
He stabbed a piece of meat on his plate with a small eating knife but paused with
it in the air. “Yer sense of humor is going to serve ye well.”

Exactly what she was afraid of.

Ailis covered her moment of fear by looking over what had landed on her plate. She
should have been hungry. Ravenous actually, since she’d taken to dancing on the green
instead of feasting. The food looked well enough, but her appetite was missing, likely
due to the lump lodged in her throat. It was growing too. But everyone was watching
her, waiting for her to make some error that they might cry insult over. She reached
for the bread and chewed on it. Forcing it down her throat.

Duana would not be claiming she’d insulted her fare.

Too soon, she realized she’d drained her cup. With an empty stomach, the wine was
speeding its way through her body. Bhaic reached for a pitcher to refill her goblet.

“I think I’ve had enough. Thank you.”

“The lassie wants to be taken off to bed,” Angus said with just a little too much
mirth. There was a gleeful note of enjoyment in his tone. He eyed her from where he
sat closer to Shamus and smacked his lips. “Since ye’re no’ eating and no’ drinking…ye
must be ready for yer duties.”

Her cheeks heated, but so did her temper. Angus snickered at her discomfort, while
a good number of his clansmen joined in. She pushed her chair back, the feet skidding
loudly.

“There is naught here that distresses me,” she said.

It was a straight-out lie.

Bhaic’s very presence distressed her.

She offered them the briefest courtesy before shooting the Head of House a hard look.
“If you would be so kind as to show me the way above stairs?”

Duana nodded and dropped her what might have been a courtesy, but the Head of House’s
eyes widened as she was bending her knee, and she shot straight back up, blinking
for a moment in astonishment. Clearly it was a habit, but one Duana wasn’t happy to
discover herself performing for a Robertson. She covered it by snapping her fingers
at several of the serving women.

Ailis followed her down the steps and through a passageway opening.

“Isn’t it just like a Robertson to be taking me away from the high table during supper
service?” Duana complained loudly.

One of the maids stifled a snort badly.

“If ye had shown me to me proper place to begin with, I would nae have bothered ye.”

Duana stopped and turned on her. “Do nae ye have any manners at all?”

“More than ye.” Ailis stepped right up. “For if me brother brought home a bride, I’d
no’ show her to a cell.”

“Ye’re a Robertson.” Duana’s tone made her disdain clear.

“Yes, I am.” Ailis kept her tone even, because she wasn’t going to give the woman
the fight she craved, only a look at just how well Ailis could stand firmly in her
place.

Duana jammed her fists onto her ample hips. “Me husband died at the hands of a Robertson.”

Ailis stared at the anger flickering in the Head of House’s eyes. “A feud I am here
to end.”

Duana snorted at her, sweeping her from head to toe and clearly finding her lacking.

“Did yer husband court ye?” Ailis asked.

The question caught Duana off guard. She titled her head to one side as she considered
it. “Well…aye, he did.” Her lips curled into a saucy grin. “No one knows how to tickle
a lass’s fancy like a MacPherson.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Ailis said softly. “I was wed at gunpoint, to a man who would rather
have been hanged, but took me in favor of seeing his father fitted with a noose. It
tickled something inside me for certain, but it was no’ me fancy.”

The Head of House lost her poise, appearing uncertain for a long moment as the maids
around them looked away to avoid making eye contact with Ailis.

BOOK: Highland Spitfire
4.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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