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Authors: Mary Wine

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“Aye,” Duana muttered, attempting to recover. “I suppose…suppose…this way.”

Ailis followed the woman up three flights of stairs. There were another two stories
above that, but Duana stopped and slid a key into a door. The grating sound of the
lock opening echoed down the stone stairway. She pushed the door in and revealed a
sizable receiving chamber. The maids went around lighting candles and hastily pulling
covers off the furniture. Two of them disappeared through an arched opening, and a
moment later, the warm glow of candlelight illuminated a bedchamber.

The maids worked to dress the bed, while two more maids arrived with pitchers of water
and a stack of fresh linen cloths. There was a crackle from the hearth as wood caught.

“Well now, off with that dress,” Duana said firmly. “Ye’ll need to be ready to greet
yer husband if he decides to share yer bed tonight. There’s a dressing robe in the
wardrobe if he sends one of his lads down for ye.”

One of the maids opened a double-door wardrobe and pulled out a thick robe. She laid
it over the arm of a wooden chair.

“Thank you. I can see to myself.” She was suddenly weary. All she wanted to do was
hide.

Just until she wasn’t so tired.

“Oh? And why would that be?” Duana was in the mood to stand her ground again. The
three maids all looked toward her. “Have something to hide, do ye?”

All four of them lifted their chins in defiance. She might have dressed them down
for it. Truly thought about it. Lord knew her temper would have enjoyed returning
spite for spite.

And where would that take them all?

Ailis reached up and tugged on the tie that kept her partlet closed at her neck. It
slid open easily. She unfastened her cuffs next, and then popped the knot at the front
of her dress. The maids started to shift uncertainly, looking between the Head of
House and Ailis as more of her clothing began to gather on the floor. She kept at
it until every last bit of her skin was on display.

“Leave when ye’ve seen enough to satisfy ye.” Her tone reflected how much determination
she had.

Two of the maids started to pick up the pieces of her dress in response. “I said leave.
I’ll see to myself before putting a single one of ye to the trouble of suffering me.”

Eyes widened with shock; cheeks turned red. The Head of House let out a huff. “Well,
see now what comes of the kindness I attempt to show ye.”

“May someone be as kind to yer daughter,” Ailis said as she gathered up her clothing
to shield herself. “When circumstances turn challenging.”

Duana’s expression changed. It became grudging. “Ye’re no weakling.”

She shuffled out of the chamber a moment later. Her maids followed, closing the door
behind them.

It was a sweet sound.

Ailis closed her eyes and let the soft click wash through her. The fire crackled behind
her, but there wasn’t a single other sound.

Thank Christ.

She just needed a moment.

Well, perhaps more than one moment. But she’d be fine.

Ye are such a liar…

* * *

“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.”

Harsh words.

True words.

Bhaic hung back in the hallway, keeping to the shadows as Ailis faced off with his
father’s Head of House. Duana was a buxom woman who had several inches on Ailis, but
his bride wasn’t intimidated.

And cut him to the bone with her words.

They chafed because he’d always enjoyed seducing his bed partners. Any man might corner
a lass, but it took cunning to draw one into the shadows for a bit of sport.

“Perhaps she’s no’ as much yers as ye think, Brother.” Marcus was hovering a few feet
behind him.

Bhaic shot him a withering look. “Do nae ye have something better to do?”

His half brother smirked and shook his head.

“The devil take ye.”

Marcus chuckled, low and ominously. “I was born in sin, Brother, so I’ve never been
very far from Lucifer’s reach. But”—he sobered, looking at the darkened passageway
the women had gone down—“tonight I’m thankful. I’d no’ care to hear how much strife
was between me and the one woman the church blessed me to have in me bed.”

“Aye.” Bhaic turned and headed back toward the hall.

“No’ going up?”

Bhaic shook his head. “The lass is correct. I’ve no’ courted her.”

Marcus reached out and caught his shoulder. “But the union is consummated?”

Bhaic looked both ways before shaking his head.

“That complicates matters.” His brother’s tone had gone hard. Marcus would always
put the clan first. “Unconsummated means we’re open to reprisals.”

Bhaic shrugged. “I was nae going to prove meself the monster she’s been raised to
think me, by jumping on her and demanding me rights. Besides, to be truthful, I was
hoping to be free of the union. Lye Rob Gordon has complicated matters.”

“Oh…well now…” Marcus started. “She looks to be such a terrible fate.”

“Ye would no’ have cared for being forced to yer knees either, Brother. Ye’ve got
yer mother’s stubborn pride.”

“Aye,” Marcus conceded. “Which is why ye’re the Tanis. The art of mediation is no’
one I’m very accomplished at. That’s a skill a laird must be willing to cultivate.”

“Aye.” Bhaic turned to go back toward the hall. Marcus stood firmly in his path.

“A Tanis must also see to securing alliances,” his brother stated firmly. “So turn
around and get to it.”

“The lass and I have had enough of being told what to do,” Bhaic stated firmly. “There’s
time enough for us to get to the particulars of our arrangement. I prefer me women
feisty, no’ worn down by a day that has been too long.”

“Lye Rob will take advantage of that mercy, make no mistake,” Marcus warned. “Yer
kindness will become a horror the lass will have to suffer if he gets his hands on
her.”

“As War Chief, that is yer concern,” Bhaic shot back. “Keep the bloody Gordons off
our land. So I can focus on making sure me marriage does nae form another chain in
the feud, because me wife learns to hate me and all me kin.”

He only passed through the hall, going to the other set of stairs and climbing up
to the fourth floor. His chamber was warm and welcoming. A fire going in the hearth
and his bedding turned down, with a hint of rosemary coming from the sheets.

He ground his teeth, frustrated by the lack of welcome Ailis had received. It was
his responsibility to see to her. She was his.

Well, no’ completely so.

His gaze returned to the bed.

What a welcoming sight it would be to have Ailis in it, her golden hair spread out
over the creamy linen sheeting.

His cock twitched, thickening as he indulged the moment of fantasy.

There was a scratching on the door.

“Aye?”

The door was pushed in slowly, and a maid peeked in. She smiled as she noted he was
halfway out of his clothing. Her gaze roamed boldly over his bare chest as her teeth
appeared in her bottom lip.

“Would ye care for…anything, my laird?”

Bhaic paused with his hands on his belt. To his shame, he couldn’t recall if he’d
had her.

And it was a shame when Ailis came to him a maiden. Feisty and passionate but still
pure for the sake of honor.

The girl was licking her lower lip. She was halfway across the floor before he could
stop her.

“Take a message to me bride,” he said.

The girl froze, disappointment twisting her features.

“Tell her I wish her a pleasant night’s rest.”

The girl smiled brightly and lowered herself. “It will only take a little bit of time,
and I will return.”

“Nae.”

Her expression darkened.

“And make sure ye speak to her with the respect me wife should have.”

The girl turned around, but not before Bhaic saw her eyes widen. He cursed when the
door shut.

He was being forced to see the Earl of Morton as a man with vision and insight. How
could his own people be spiteful to one wee Robertson lass who was all but imprisoned
inside the MacPherson castle?

There was the savage side of a Highlander’s nature that one could be proud of, and
then there was the behavior of his own kin. Meanness, for the sake of being unkind.
It shamed him.

Yet Ailis had faced them all down. Damned if he hadn’t been proud of her. She might
have complained; instead she stood up for herself. Willing to earn her place.

Mercy? Nae. She deserved courting. No’ the cold reality of being claimed.

He unbuckled his belt and gathered up his plaid before it fell to the floor. He took
the time to lay it on a table, folding it into pleats and threading one belt beneath
it before he turned to take his ease. If there was trouble during the night, he’d
need his kilt ready.

He lay back in his bed, his cock stiff and unsatisfied.

But he was pleased.

Aye. He was.

For tomorrow, he’d set about chasing down his bride.

* * *

Someone knocked on the door.

Ailis sat up, crumpling the sheet. Her heart jumped into a rhythm that she was sure
would make it burst. Her attention flew to where the dressing robe was still lying
over the arm of the chair.

Was the day not yet finished?

A girl came into view, looking around the outer receiving room.

“I am here.”

The maid turned to look at her and moved to where the two rooms joined under a double-wide
opening. There were thick velvet curtains that might be drawn, but Ailis had left
them pushed back to have the light from the fire. The darkness had felt too lonely,
the glowing red embers offering small comfort, but comfort nonetheless.

“Yer husband did send me to ye.”

Her heart was definitely going to burst.

“He bids ye a restful night.”

The girl offered her a shrug and started to leave, but then turned back and lowered
herself, looking as though she was as uncertain of the gesture as Ailis was in receiving
it. She scurried out the door the moment she was finished.

A restful night?

Dare she embrace relief or dread the fact that everyone would soon know Bhaic hadn’t
wanted her?

She groaned and lay back down. How was it possible to be granted what she craved but
then be dissatisfied?

Ye’re fickle…

Maybe. Honestly, she was too tired to ponder anything. The bedding was thick and warm,
luring her away into the embrace of slumber.

She’d puzzle it all out tomorrow.

Four

First light showed her more evidence of the MacPherson’s superiority.

From the windows in her room, Ailis could see the outer buildings that supported the
castle. The kitchens were huge. She counted at least seven chimneys, all of them in
use. There was a well-worn road that led up to those kitchens. Even so early in the
morning, there were wagons arriving. Beside the kitchen were henhouses and a byre
with cows. Young boys were moving around, sitting down on short stools to milk those
cows.

Her belly rumbled, low and long.

Farther down the road were more buildings, likely belonging to the butcher. In the
distance, she could see the stables. It was a misty morning, and chilly. Ailis pulled
up her arisaid to fend off the chill, since she didn’t have a wrap to fill in the
neckline of her dress.

More than one person turned to stare at the Robertson colors when she passed by the
passageways. She hurried by, not giving them time to start an argument with her. This
early, the hall was still full of retainers sleeping on its floor. The men were rolled
in their plaids, slumbering side by side, the tables and benches pushed to one end.

Being in the employ of the laird was a good life for many. The keep kept the snow
out better than a rough hut, and men who served as retainers might enjoy three meals
a day. They would all be fiercely loyal to Shamus and Bhaic. She stepped lightly as
she went through the passageway toward the kitchens.

The hearths were fired up, the ovens hot as more than two dozen women worked lumps
of bread dough on long tables. Flour floated in the air, tickling her nose. Ailis
let her arisaid down, grateful to be able to blend in.

She stopped and selected a small round of bread resting on a cooling rack. After her
meager supper, it smelled delightful. Her belly rumbled, and she walked through to
a storage room where she selected a small chunk of cheese. The storeroom smelled delicious
and slightly of wax, but inviting. There were pottery bowls with wide leather caps
that held softer cheeses and perhaps fruit preserves from the last spring. Maybe honey
too.

Had she really been gone from Robertson land for only one day?

Was it only yesterday that she’d been greeted as a member of the household?

“Here now, can ye nae wait for the laird to bless the bread?”

Ailis turned to find a woman standing in the doorway to the storeroom. She had her
sleeves pushed all the way up her arms and a huge apron that was covered in flour.
Her hair was tied up behind a length of fabric, with just a few wisps having worked
their way free.

“Oh…well now, ye are nae who I expected to see in the storeroom, mistress.”

Ailis was holding the bread and cheese to her body. The woman pulled off a length
of toweling hanging from her belt and gave it a snap. Flour flew off it.

“Here, tie it up in this.” She handed over the toweling and disappeared into the main
kitchens. But she returned, offering a small knife and pottery jug. “I suppose I can
nae blame ye for wanting a bit of peace while ye eat. I do nae know how ye managed
to swallow anything last eve. The last time I felt that much tension in the hall was
during the monthly court.”

“Helen? What’s keeping ye?”

Helen smiled before she turned and went back to the kitchen. There was good-natured
conversation at the worktable. Someone broke out in song, and others joined in. It
was tempting to stay, but when she appeared in the door frame, half the women snapped
their mouths closed.

Ailis turned and walked through the back doorway. She pulled her arisaid up again,
grateful for the length of Robertson wool that she’d worn tucked into her belt to
show her clan affiliation. It was a good length, wide enough for her to wrap around
her shoulders without pulling it from her belt. If it rained, she might make a hood
of it to shelter under.

Today, it granted her privacy from the MacPhersons peering at her as she passed. She
climbed up to the stables before sitting on a stump. The sun was in sight now, stretching
out its golden rays. The mist was rolling in wisps, retreating to the valleys where
the streams ran full of melting spring snow.

The length of toweling proved useful, covering her dress as she pulled the bread apart.
Since she didn’t have anything else to wear, keeping the front of it from stains would
be best. She pulled the cork from the pottery jug and sniffed at the contents. It
was water.

She could hear the horses as they woke and greeted the day. Wagons were making their
way along the road, and in the distance, she could hear the church bell calling everyone
to worship.

She muttered a quick prayer, asking for forgiveness, because going anywhere near stone
walls chafed at the moment. Her breakfast finished, she shook out the toweling and
tucked the knife into her belt before walking into the stables.

Her mare was at the end of one long row of stalls. She tossed her head when Ailis
greeted her.

Tugging her skirt up, Ailis climbed up onto the crossbeams of the stall and sat on
the top rail. Her mare was chewing her breakfast but nuzzled against her, looking
for affection.

Ailis gave it freely, needing someone, or something, to help drive the loneliness
from her heart.

“See? I told ye!”

Ailis jumped in surprise and slipped off the rail. Four burly retainers were coming
down the row of stalls, their strides long and purposeful. They had doublets on with
their kilts, and sword belts. Each man kept a sure hand on the hilt of his weapon
as they moved to control the swing of the weapon behind him.

“No Robertson lass is going to be too hard to find.”

“What are ye doing?” Ailis demanded. The retainer who appeared to be in command inclined
his head toward her, but reached out and clamped his hand around her upper arm.

“Taking ye back to the castle.”

She pulled against his hold, but only succeeded in wrenching her shoulder. “Do ye
suppose ye might just ask me to accompany ye?” The urge to panic was hard to resist,
but she fought to maintain control over her emotions.

His companions lost their scowls for a moment, one of them fingering his beard. “Would
ye, then? Just come along quiet like?”

“Ye’ll no’ know unless ye try,” she snapped, jerking on her arm again.

The leader released her and fixed her with a skeptical glare. “I am Lyel. Would ye
be so kind as to return to the castle with me and the lads?”

Her arm smarted. She resisted the urge to rub it and let him see that he’d pained
her. “May I ask why?”

One of the others spoke up. “That’s what ye get for asking. Now she’s going to pester
ye to death with questions.”

“Shut yer jaw, Finley,” Lyel said. “Well, mistress? Are ye coming, or are we hauling
ye between us?”

“Hauling?” She stepped back, and they all followed her. “Why ever would ye haul me?”

Was she a prisoner then?

“Marcus set us to looking after ye.” Lyel indicated his comrades. “Finley there, Skene,
and Kam. Since ye were no’ at table to break yer fast, there was a bit of a concern
for where ye might have slipped off to. A Robertson unaccounted for, well now, there’s
the reason for concern.”

“I was just here…seeing me mare.”

Lyel’s lips curved in a smug grin. “Aye. I thought to myself, where would she go but
up to where she might get herself a horse, to be quicker away to her father’s lands?”

“That is an unfounded charge.”

“It is.” Bhaic suddenly appeared. The four retainers all reached up and tugged on
the corners of their bonnets. “The lady would be long away if that were her intention.
According to the kitchens, she was gone just after first light. Helen will nae give
her food again.”

She’d just been enjoying a moment of relief when his second comment stole it away.
“Good Christ,” she swore. “What does it matter?”

Bhaic gave the retainers a gesture. They nodded and headed back down the aisle toward
the doors of the stable, but they didn’t leave. He’d started to turn back toward her
but looked back at the retainers.

“Can I no’ be alone with me wife?”

Lyel cleared his throat and looked down.

“Be gone,” Bhaic ordered them.

“The thing is”—Lyel cleared his throat again—“we can nae do that.”

“And why no’?” Bhaic demanded.

“Well, ye see, Marcus gave very clear instructions.”

“Aye, clear they were.” Finley came to his comrade’s aid. “Ye two need…witnesses.”
He gestured to himself and his friends.

Bhaic’s face darkened with understanding. “Would it suit ye if I just toss her skirts
right here?”

Ailis felt as if she’d been punched in the belly as the retainers all started nodding.

“That would do it sure enough.”

“Right well.”

“Better done quickly, I always say. Settles the lassies down when they’re skittish.”

“With a fair lass like that? I’d be in favor of tossing her skirts,” Kam finished
up.

“Ye will no’!” She lifted her foot and kicked Bhaic straight in the backside. He hadn’t
been watching her, and stumbled when her blow landed. The retainers hooted with amusement.

“Skittish and spirited!”

“Better get a bridle on her!”

Bhaic flipped around. “I did nae mean it like that, Ailis.” He’d landed in a fighting
crouch but recovered quickly. She’d be wise to recognize just how deadly the man might
be, but all she could hear was the choking sounds his father’s retainers were making.

“I am no’ a strumpet to be spoken of so freely for sport.”

He held his hands up. “I know ye are nae. Men talk…more crudely.”

She’d made it away from the stall. He started to follow her and she just couldn’t
control the urge to edge away from him.

He didn’t care for the way she was backing away from him. His eyes narrowed, his lips
pressing into a hard line. “If I was going to handle ye roughly, I’d have insisted
on sharing yer bed last night.”

She stopped moving, realizing she was far more trapped by the union she was in with
him than anything else. There was nowhere she might go, no place on earth that wouldn’t
recognize the rights of a husband to his wife.

It left her feeling hopeless. Trapped.

But he had shown her kindness. She tried to hold onto that fact.

“I simply woke early,” she said. “I was nae leaving.”

“But ye are here…in the stables.”

She felt him closing the distance. It was the oddest sensation. A tightening of her
insides and a ripple of awareness across her skin.

“Me mare is the only creature I was certain would welcome me.”

His lips twitched, curving into a confident grin that sent her blood racing. “Ye may
depend on a warm welcome when ye come to me, lass.”

“Come to ye?”

He nodded.

Wouldn’t that be too bold?

He’d made it close enough to clasp her wrist. She jerked when he closed his fingers
around her limb. His expression was harsh.

“I know me strength,” he muttered softly. He stood a full head taller than she. He
might have tucked her head beneath his chin. “Ye needn’t flinch.”

“Yer touch is…unsettling.”

He lifted her chin with two fingers, making her look into his eyes. She’d been avoiding
it. Because she knew she’d get lost again.

She was right. There was something about the way he looked into her eyes that made
her feel as though he could see her most intimate thoughts.

“Aye.” His tone had deepened, clearly pleased, but in some dark, wicked way. “Since
we’re wed, it’s as it should be, lass. I plan to teach ye how to enjoy it.”

She liked the sound of that.

Her mouth went dry, and her lips felt as if they were recalling exactly what it felt
like to be kissed.

Oh, it was a terrible, craven thing to like, but she couldn’t very well lie to herself.

He was leaning toward her, making ready to kiss her.

“Why…why didn’t ye…insist last eve? If ye are so convinced I am no’ trustworthy, why
leave the matter unsettled?”

He made a soft sound under his breath. “Because I do nae wish to be the brute ye accused
me of being.”

“I called ye that justly.”

“Aye.” His tone had become a husky whisper. “So grant me some notice for the fact
that I am trying to please ye.”

She nodded. But with nothing to quibble over, all she was left with was the knowledge
that he was stirring up her senses.

His breath teased the surface of her lips, sending a ripple of awareness over the
delicate skin. He eased closer, his scent filling her senses. Her heart accelerated,
beating with hard, deep, pounding motions. She wanted his kiss, and he leaned down,
his blue eyes focused on her mouth. She started to rise onto her toes, intending to
meet him.

Something snapped beneath a boot at the other end of the stable. She stiffened, landing
back on her heels with a jolt.

“I told ye to stay still! We’re going to be stuck trailing the pair of them until
they get this finished,” Finley barked. “Don’t mind us…”

Bhaic cursed in Gaelic. “I needs speak with me brother. They will nae leave us in
peace, since his word holds the same weight as mine.”

Ailis withdrew, but he pulled her to a stop with the hold on her wrist. She lifted
her arm and started to pull against his grip. Their gazes locked as she increased
her resistance. He didn’t want to let her go. She witnessed the flash of rejection
in his eyes before he relented and opened his fingers.

“I’ll take ye back up to the castle, lass. I do nae know what women spend their days
doing, but I know it is no less demanding than me own responsibilities.”

He offered her his hand.

Time felt as though it froze. He stretched just another inch closer to her.

“Take me hand, lass. Trust that I only mean to put it on me arm.”

Trust. It was an enormous idea, one that felt as if it had the ability to crush her.

Yet part of her wanted to touch him again.

Her heart skipped a beat as she laid hers into his grasp. He settled her hand on his
forearm and started off.

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