Authors: Mary Wine
And she was wedding the worst one of all. The laird’s son, the next leader of raids
against her own kin. At least he didn’t want to touch her. But he reached down and
squeezed her hand. She jumped and made eye contact. His eyes were a startling blue.
Not the color of the summer sky, but a vibrant blue that struck her as more intense.
“The priest is waiting,” he growled, startling her back into the moment.
She looked at the priest and nodded, because she couldn’t recall what he’d asked her.
The older man frowned but smoothed out his expression quickly.
“Ye must answer with yer voice,” he admonished softly. “Do ye swear to be an obedient
She bit her lip, rebellion flashing through her. But it was followed quickly by the
memory of the horses and the waiting nooses. “Aye.” She had to force the word past
her lips. It practically stung. For the first time in her life, she doubted she was
going to be able to keep her promise.
She was lying in the house of God.
Breaking a commandment.
And all because of the MacPhersons.
“Aye.” Bhaic’s voice broke through her mental turmoil, the harsh note in his voice
grating on her pride.
Why should he be so furious? The answer was simple: she was as hated on his land as
he was on hers. The idea punctured her anger and left her feelings unguarded.
As much as she’d not been in a hurry to wed, kneeling beside a groom that detested
her had never worried her. Her father had always placed her tender feelings above
cold-blooded business transactions that might be sealed with a wedding.
The Earl of Morton was not adverse to such things, apparently.
The priest elevated the golden chalice and brought it toward them. Her throat felt
swollen tight, but the burn of the wine made its way down to her stomach anyway. The
last of the Latin prayers echoed through the stone abbey as the priest made the sign
of the cross in front of them.
“Go in peace.”
Ailis was certain she had never heard three more impossible words in her life. Bhaic
jumped up as though the kneeling bench was studded with spikes. His kilt swayed back,
giving her a glimpse of his hard thighs before it settled into place.
Why are ye looking at the man’s thighs?
She had no idea and chided herself for mentally lingering on something she saw often
“I will be providing the wedding banquet,” Morton informed them.
More of the earl’s armed men surrounded Bhaic and took him off through the side of
the abbey. They gestured her after him.
She went, but she refused to think of the man as her husband.
He was nothing of the sort.
He was a MacPherson.
* * *
The Earl of Morton knew how to celebrate.
The banquet was lavish. A short ride from the abbey took them to a tower belonging
to the earl. His staff offered platters of new spring fruit, brought from the shipyards
servicing lands far away, where spring came earlier than it did in the Highlands.
A full boar had been roasted until it was golden brown, the scent teasing her nose,
but Ailis refused to eat any of it.
She was not celebrating.
Bhaic seemed in agreement with her, leaving his plate untouched as the staff continued
to carry in platters meant to tempt.
Below them, at the long tables that filled the hall, both of their kin brooded. The
only relief from their scowls came when one of them gave in and tasted some of the
rich fare offered, grinning as they tasted the fine food. Musicians played merry tunes
in alcoves surrounding the hall. The tempo would have normally tempted Ailis to tap
her foot, but she felt as stiff as a tree.
There was a pretty tablecloth beneath her plate and beeswax candles burning. Someone
had made her a wreath of heather and greens for her hair, but she’d tossed it in front
of her plate, and it sat there looking sad. Maybe she shouldn’t be so surly. The Head
of House cast her a reprimanding look from where she was overseeing the banquet. It
wasn’t hard to tell what the older woman was thinking. She was judging Ailis a brat.
A girl in a woman’s body, still throwing tantrums because everything was not as she
Life was often unkind. A wise person learned to take joy when they could find it.
The staff had no doubt been working for days to prepare the decorative foods being
presented. Every dish set before her and Bhaic gleamed from recent polishing. Yet
no one gave the staff any word of gratitude. All her kin wanted was to fight with
The MacPhersons had exactly the same thing on their minds. Scathing glances flew between
tables as muffled curses mixed with the music. Ailis looked up at the musicians in
the alcoves. Music was a rare treat. Most of the time, the days were too full of chores
for anyone to have the inclination to play an instrument during supper, and here her
kin were, wasting the moment. Ignoring the pleasures while they plotted more bloodletting.
Perhaps the earl had a point.
She felt guilty for even thinking it, but she could see the logic in ending the feud
that had gone on for so many years.
Ailis sighed. She reached for the wreath and put it on.
“Pleased with yer circumstances after all?” Bhaic asked, cutting her a hard look.
“Was this all a plot yer father hatched to further steal from the MacPhersons?”
Her eyes grew round as her temper boiled. He was a huge man, intimidating. He was
scowling at her, but that didn’t change the fact that they were both being rude to
And she was done with it. She focused on that thought because ill manners were more
than MacPherson or Robertson, more than even a Highlander opposed to a lowland Scot.
Manners were civilized and the mark of a good upbringing, as well as the mark of an
“I’m thinking I’m past the age of sulking.” She reached for her goblet and took a
swallow, forcing a serene look upon her face.
Fury flickered in his eyes, and he leaned closer. “Is that why yer father had to resort
to plotting with the earl to get ye a husband? Because no one in their right mind
would want to steal away a Robertson harpy who is long in the tooth?”
The tiny bit of contentment she’d managed to cultivate shriveled and died. But instead
of allowing her temper to rise, what she felt was a twinge of hurt that he might judge
her so harshly.
His voice grew louder, causing the men below them to look up at the high table. Some
of her father’s men growled, and there was a clear answer from the MacPherson.
Bhaic stiffened and looked at their audience.
The goblet shook in her hand as she faced the very real circumstances of their union.
Morton’s words rose from her memory.
Prayers for the living or for the dead…
“I’ve made my choice, so make yers…” Ailis whispered. “All they wait upon is a small
quarrel between us to begin the fighting. I confess I would rather no’ give it to
them. Being agreeable is no’ too much for me to accomplish, no matter what insults
ye care to bait me with.”
He tilted his head toward her so their eyes met. Something in his eyes sent a ripple
of awareness through her. Her heart accelerated as she realized there was no hope
of success unless he joined her.
“Ye are more woman than lass.” There was a touch of something that might have been
admiration in his tone, if she were given to entertaining the idea that he could feel
anything but hate toward her.
“I’d rather no’ see blood spilt either,” he said slowly as he made an effort to soften
his expression. She could see the resistance glittering in his eyes and knew he saw
the same in hers. Yet she maintained her soft smile, and he forced his lips into an
A Robertson and MacPherson, united in a common goal. Inconceivable, yet it sat on
both of their shoulders in that moment. A moment of unity she’d never imagined, but
discovered herself proud of. Yet it was a shared achievement.
She had no idea what to think of that fact.
He muttered something profane under his breath and reached for his goblet. He raised
it high. “To me bride.” The MacPherson and Robertson reached for their goblets out
of habit, many of them looking surprised when it sank in that they had just toasted
to the union.
With each other.
“It seems we have both been assigned roles to play that we do nae favor, Ailis.” His
lips had quirked into what might actually be considered a grin. If only a minor one.
“Ye do so with grace, madam.”
For a fleeting moment, she felt the most unexpected thing: a sense of commonality
between herself and a MacPherson. It was shocking, numbing her wits enough to keep
her staring at Bhaic. The lapse allowed her to notice how fair he was. His cheekbones
were high, his jaw strong. She liked the way he kept his chin scraped clean of whiskers.
Somehow, the lack of beard made his lips look sensual. A flutter went through her
belly, and she looked away, the unexpected response making her uncertain. There was
the unmistakable touch of heat in her cheeks.
Her gaze landed on the Earl of Morton. He bestowed a small, pleased look on her, then
stood up and signaled to the men standing guard behind the high table. “I bid you
The musicians had been replaced by gunmen. They pointed their black-powder muskets
down at the men sitting at the tables. Her father wasn’t intimidated, instead climbing
to his feet, his face red with rage.
“Bloody bastard,” Liam Robertson raged. “Me daughter is nae going above stairs with
“She is going above stairs to consummate her marriage,” the earl informed them.
“Me son will have naught to do with any Robertson wench, even if she strips down and
spreads herself out for him!” Shamus MacPherson hollered to the delight of his men.
They cheered and pounded the tabletop.
“Then I will shoot the lot of you right here. I offered you a choice. Make no mistake,
I will have peace between you. If this is not a valid marriage, I will wipe out the
generation that cannot see the wisdom in building a future free of feuding.”
The earl’s tone was harsh. Seeing the muzzles aimed at her kin, Ailis pushed her chair
back and stood. The Head of House rushed in front of the guards and took her by the
hand, pulling her across the raised platform the high table stood on. Ailis didn’t
look back, but she felt Bhaic’s gaze burning into her.
The lump was back in her throat. No matter how many times she swallowed, it remained.
The Head of House was patting the back of her hand, advising her to “bear up.” Wasn’t
that the plight of women and wives? To shoulder what must be endured in a world run
by men? The Head of House sent her approving looks, as did the maids that followed.
None of them wanted the chore of mopping up blood from the floor or to lay their heads
down in a keep haunted by the ghosts of those gunned down inside its walls.
But the thing that horrified Ailis most was the certain knowledge that the worst was
yet to come.
* * *
The earl’s tower boasted a fine new slipper tub.
Sitting near the hearth at the back of the kitchen, it was made of copper and had
a high back. The Head of House had set her maids to making sure it was full of water.
The moment the woman pulled her into the kitchen, the maids working at the long tables
pointed the boys toward the doors.
With only women left, the maids began to untie the laces holding Ailis’s dress closed.
She tried to shy away, but they surrounded her, one working on the lace that closed
her bodice in the back and two more loosening the cuffs of her sleeves.
“We are only women here,” the Head of House insisted firmly before pulling the wreath
off Ailis’s head. “No need for modesty. And all the better for ye if there are witnesses
aplenty to swear ye are nae misshapen.”
Ailis froze, stunned by the Head of House’s words. The woman nodded with approval
as the maids lifted off Ailis’s bodice and began to open her stays.
There had been no midwife to inspect her.
Without such an inspection, Bhaic MacPherson might send her back to her father, claiming
she was misshapen.
No doubt the earl thought himself so high in authority that such a detail would not
matter. The man was certainly a lowlander, for no Highlander would have made such
an error. Ailis enjoyed the thought, for at last, she was able to see the earl’s failings
instead of the very tight trap he’d managed to set.
She suddenly smiled, the lump in her throat dissolving. Bhaic wanted no more of their
marriage than she. Of course he would send her back to her father. The earl and his
guards would be long gone, and her father would not trust any further meetings with
The marriage would be annulled.
Relief flowed through her.
“There now…” the Head of House said in response to the smile that lifted Ailis’s face.
“Ye’re a levelheaded one and no mistake. Seeing the blessing ye have in being wed
to the son and no’ the father.”
Her smile faltered. Ailis looked at the woman as some of the maids made low sounds
in their throats.
It would seem matters could be worse after all.
Her stays were opened, and the maids took the garment away. Her skirts followed quickly.
“Likely the earl worried Laird MacPherson might be too old to consummate his vows,”
the Head of House continued.
“Likely,” Ailis agreed. It was another reason for her to be hopeful. An old man might
just keep her, but Bhaic was young and wouldn’t care to have her shackled to him.
No, of course not. She’d seen the resentment in his eyes.
So, there was naught to worry about.
Even being stripped of her remaining garments didn’t bother her—she was still basking
in the certainty that Bhaic MacPherson would happily send her back to her father as
soon as the earl was gone.
The Head of House produced a comb and brushed out Ailis’s long hair. The blond strands
were wavy from the tight braid she’d worn all day, but straightened as soon as Ailis
climbed into the tub and submerged her head.