Authors: Mary Wine
The soap they handed her was made with rosemary. Ailis happily rubbed it along her
arms and legs while the maids tried to hurry her.
She resisted their prodding, lingering in her bath and rinsing her hair twice before
standing up. With her stress dissipating, she grew tired. There was no resistance
in her as the Head of House guided her up the steps to the second floor.
But the knot in her belly returned when she realized some of the earl’s guards had
fallen in step behind them. She’d not escape completely from this marriage. There
would always be whispers clinging to her skirts.
The sun was setting, the last crimson rays making the windows glow. The woman kept
going, pulling Ailis up another flight of narrow stone steps. At least the earl’s
men kept back enough to keep from getting a clear look at how thin her chemise was.
They reached a door and the Head of House stopped. “It’s a fine chamber the earl had
prepared for ye.” She pulled the ring of keys hanging from her waist and fitted one
into a lock on the door. It made a grinding sound when she turned it.
Ailis looked down at the two guards waiting behind her. They wore breastplate armor
and helmets, and each one had a sword and a smaller black-powder gun. They inclined
their heads before looking away because she wasn’t dressed. The Head of House had
brushed out her hair and put the wreath back on her head before deeming her ready
to meet her groom.
He wasn’t that.
Bhaic MacPherson wasn’t going to be her husband. Yet it appeared that they would have
to share a chamber for the night. Try as she might, Ailis couldn’t stop her heart
from racing at the thought.
But the Head of House took her into the chamber, and Ailis froze when she saw the
earl sitting in a chair next to the bed.
“The bride, at last.” He motioned to the Head of House. “Remove that chemise. I will
bear witness to her health myself.”
* * *
Ailis felt as if her lungs had frozen. She needed to draw breath but couldn’t. She
was locked in the horror of the moment, unable to look away from the hard conviction
in the earl’s eyes. Unable to recall how certain she’d been that everything would
be righted by the next day.
The reason was simple. She had to deal with the present first, and the Earl of Morton
was a harsh reality indeed.
“Ye’ll do no such thing,” a male voice said.
Her deliverance had come at the hands of Bhaic MacPherson. She was hugging herself,
intent on keeping the chemise on as the Head of House tried to comply with her master’s
order. But she was also trying not to stare at Bhaic MacPherson.
He was stripped to his shirt and boots, the edge of the shirt falling to just above
his knees. She stared at his groin, unable to help herself, but the dark room didn’t
allow her to see anything.
Bhaic stepped in front of the woman and pointed her toward the doorway they’d entered
the chamber through.
“Did ye bathe me bride?” he asked.
The Head of House lowered herself. “Aye, Laird.”
“In naught but her skin?” he pressed while Ailis felt her cheeks burn.
He grasped Ailis by the upper arm and sent her toward the large bed.
“With other experienced women in attendance?” Bhaic continued.
“That has naught to do with my request,” the earl interrupted. “I’ll see the wench
for myself, so there will be no cry from your father that the girl is unfit for marriage.”
Bhaic pointed the Head of House toward the doorway again, and she took the opportunity
to hurry out of the chamber.
“Ye’ve had yer way enough today, Lord Morton.” Bhaic faced off with the man. “Ye will
nae be looking on me wife.”
“This marriage will stand, or I will return with enough soldiers to destroy your clan.”
“I’ve heard enough threats out of ye too,” Bhaic informed the earl. “Ye have no guards
The earl stood and grinned unpleasantly. “Thinking of trying me, Highlander? You might
find it harder than you think to choke the life out of me.”
Bhaic smiled menacingly. “The only thing I’m worried about is that I might enjoy it
and have to account for it to St. Peter someday.”
The two men began to circle each other. Bhaic moved toward her and slapped her bottom.
“Get up on the bed, lass, so ye’re out of the way.”
Her cheeks were on fire now, an instant reaction to the idea of climbing into the
large bed at Bhaic’s command.
He’d be a demanding one in bed, for certain.
The thought was misplaced. It was also exciting, if she was willing to admit it. Which
she wasn’t. But she climbed onto the bed. The mattress was filled with goose down
and the sheets scented with expensive ambergris, but she was focused on the two men
glaring at each other.
“My guards are below”—the earl spoke softly, ominously—“with their muskets aimed at
your father’s heart. If I don’t return, they have orders to fire.”
Bhaic only grinned in the face of the earl’s threat.
“Ye will nae be the first man to discover his authority fading with his death,” Bhaic
responded. “Once ye’re dead, they will look for the next leader who is still among
the living. That’s the way with ye men who worship position and power.”
“And ye’ll go back to fighting over something yer grandfather did.” The earl straightened,
abandoning his fighting pose. “Tell me something, Highlander, is it better to fight
for yourself or for a man who is long dead? You will be Laird of the MacPherson soon.
Are you going to happily condemn hundreds of your own kin to death because you want
to continue a feud that is three generations old? And one that started with a jilted
groom and a fat dowry? Where’s the honor in sending your clansmen to their deaths
over something so very done with?”
There was a long silence in the chamber.
“I’ll be remembering who I am,” Bhaic answered, but his forehead furrowed, and he
“Thinking about it, aren’t you?” the earl questioned smoothly. “Do that, son of the
MacPhersons. Think long and hard about the fact that right now, you can choose a brighter
future for your clan. You claim to put them above all else. Consider doing it instead
of just talking about it.”
“I married the Robertson wench to protect them, did I nae?”
The earl nodded. “Words mean little without action. Unconsummated, your vows mean
nothing. I am not a fool. I will know if you send her back to her father. I also know
it will not be an easy union. Your clan will accept her as their mistress only if
you make it clear she is your choice.” He turned to look at Ailis. “You wanted peace
enough to wed, but it will take far more than words spoken in front of a priest.”
The earl walked to the door and pounded on it. His guards pulled the small view hatch
open and looked at him before opening the door.
“I may not be a Highlander, but I assure you, I am devoted to Scotland as deeply as
you are. I’ll see this country united, even if I have to snuff out the life of those
who cannot move into the future. Marriage or destruction. Make your choice, future
Laird and Lady of the MacPhersons.”
The earl left the room, and his men closed the door. The sound echoed inside the chamber
like a gunshot. Ailis tightened her hands around the foot post of the bed, holding
her breath as she waited to see what Bhaic would do.
Well, what are
planning to do, Ailis?
She really had no idea. Matters had seemed so clear while she bathed. Now, the earl’s
words were echoing inside her head. It was as if her mind was unable to focus on anything
“I suppose the man has a valid point,” Bhaic said, his tone clearly displeased but
nonetheless accepting. “A very good one.”
Ailis jumped off the bed.
The stone floor was cold beneath her bare feet, but she preferred to shiver rather
than wait in the bed.
“He’s spouting nonsense.” She moved away from the bed, looking for wood to start a
fire, but there was none.
Bhaic chuckled, sitting down in the chair the earl had been in. He ran his hand through
his hair before stretching out his legs.
“He may be, but the man is no fool.” Bhaic leaned down and started loosening the ties
on his boots. “This chamber has been prepared very carefully to ensure that the only
comfortable place to spend the night is in that bed.”
“Together?” Her voice cracked again. She hugged herself and backed up, but a gust
of wind blew in the window, chilling her to the bone. She stared at the openings in
the stone, completely perplexed by the inability to cover them.
“The shutters are missing,” he confirmed from behind her.
Ailis was looking through an iron screen that would have been used to darken the chamber
for a lying-in or while someone was ill. On the other side, there was no glass and
no shutters to seal out the night.
“No wood either,” she remarked after staring at the fireplace for a full minute because
she just didn’t want to face their circumstances.
She turned and locked gazes with him. She was beginning to shiver, and it was the
chill of the night, not her company, causing it.
There were windows all around the chamber. The night wind blew in, stirring her hair
as she looked back at the bed.
“No bed curtains,” Bhaic added.
There were still rails where the fabric would have hung. Bhaic stood and grasped one.
“The canopy is gone as well.” He released the rail with a disgusted grunt. “The bastard
planned this well. His bully boys took me kilt while his staff had ye delivered in
that transparent chemise.”
Her cheeks warmed. “It is nae transparent.”
He glanced toward her, his lips curving. “It is when ye walk near that candle.”
She gasped and crawled right over the bed to the opposite side of the room, leaving
the single candle behind.
“Ye can stop playing the innocent,” he said in a tone that sounded as though it was
edged with disgust.
She discovered herself stammering and fought to make her tone even. “I am nae playing
He reached for the bedding, flipping it back to reveal only the single comforter and
sheet. “Ye’re the one who decided this was a good idea.”
Her temper rose, burning away her shyness. “Compared to watching me kin killed, it
He caught her in a hard look, but at least there was a flicker of agreement in his
blue eyes. “It seems we are both victims of our fathers’ stubborn natures.”
“Aye,” she answered.
He very slowly slid his gaze down her body, truly looking at her like a woman instead
of a Robertson. It stole her breath, sending a bolt of heat through her that she’d
never experienced before.
“So why are ye blushing now, Ailis Robertson?” he asked mockingly. “Did ye nae think
on just what marriage involves?”
She looked away, unable to hold his unsettling stare. Her emotions felt as if they
might spill over all the boundaries she had always lived by. There was something about
him that made her nervous. And to be sure, she was uncertain how to have a civil conversation
with a MacPherson. Yet being rude seemed wrong. So she floundered as she tried to
“I was a bit more focused on the musket aimed at me father’s heart,” she said in a
His eyes narrowed. “Ye’re forgetting I knelt beside ye for the same reason, lass.”
There was a tone in his voice that shamed her. She drew in a deep breath and let it
out. “Why are ye tormenting me with accusations about not thinking on what marriage
involves?” She ended up looking at the bed again, a sense of defeat pressing against
her heart. “I certainly had no thought I’d be wed today.”
“We have that in common.” Their gazes met once more in a moment of unexpected agreement.
He made a low sound of frustration, but his features lost their stern edge. For a
moment he contemplated her, looking as uncertain as she felt. “How old are ye, Ailis?”
She wasn’t sure she liked hearing her name on his lips. It was oddly intimate. Yet
they stood facing each other in their underclothes, so fitting as well.
“Twenty-two,” she answered.
“Old enough to be thinking of marriage,” he said.
“But with ye?” she asked before realizing she was insulting him. It really wasn’t
wise, since the man was locked inside the chamber with her. It was just second nature;
he was a MacPherson.
“Me own delight is near impossible to contain.”
His tone left no doubt that he was displeased with her. She lifted her chin, but it
was only a show of bravado. She felt the distinct sting of her feelings being injured.
He was just a MacPherson. But it still hurt to realize she was hated for nothing more
than the fact that she was a Robertson.
He muttered something low and moved around the bed, closing the distance between them.
Her belly twisted in alarm. She scrambled over the bed again before even thinking
about why he alarmed her so much. But the candle flame illuminated her the moment
she stood up, so she backed away from it. That left her facing him without the bed
“I will nae rape ye.”
There was something new in his tone, something that calmed her. It was disgust, but
not the sort he’d aimed at her before. This was injured pride. Even if he was a MacPherson,
he still had a Highlander’s honor.
But that admission left her nothing but gratitude. And duty. Men were not the only
ones who had to shoulder their share of life’s burdens. She looked back at the bed,
her mouth once again dry. “Ye…ye…do nae have…to.” She forced the words through her
resisting lips. “I keep me promises.”
“As do I,” he confirmed in an unrelenting tone.
The urge to cry filled her. She shook it off and ordered herself to go toward the
bed. At least it was dark and he wouldn’t see the tears shimmering in her eyes. Small
comfort, but better than none.
She sat on the edge of the bed, finding it impossible to lift her feet.
He moved closer, sending her heart racing. She was so keenly aware of him. Her skin
felt alive and eager for contact with his. Beneath the smooth fabric of her chemise,
her nipples slowly drew into hard points.
Ailis raised her chin, needing to understand why he affected her so intensely. She
found him watching her, his blue eyes full of something she could not understand,
but it sent a bolt of heat through her. He was only a pace from her, and studied her
for a long moment before he reached out and stroked her cheek.
The contact was shocking. She jumped, scooting back to the center of the bed.
He chuckled. “Noble sacrifices are nae to me taste either, Ailis.”
He placed one knee on the bed, looking as if he was testing her nerve.
“I do nae know what to do.” And she didn’t care to admit it to him either. “It is
nae a shame that I am nervous. Ye are the first man I have been alone with…in a bedchamber.”
“Aye, ye’re skittish.” His expression softened for a moment; warmth that looked like
compassion flickered in his eyes. But a gust of wind blew in and flattened his shirt
against his lower body. For a moment, the fabric molded over his member. She stared
at it and felt her cheeks burn.
“Yet still bold.” He laughed, throwing his head back and shaking with amusement.
It grated on her nerves, wounding her pride and pushing her into action. She grabbed
one of the pillows and rose on her knees to swing it at his head. It made a soft “woof,”
turning his head and silencing him.
“Stop mocking me, ye brute.”
He retaliated with a lightning-quick motion of his arm, sending the pillow flying
across the chamber. She gasped, but he was already reaching for her and had her hauled
up against his body before she finished drawing in her breath.
He clamped her against him, his embrace as strong as steel.
“Perhaps I am enjoying ye, Ailis.” He ran one of his hands down her back and cupped
one side of her bottom, pulling her against his lower body. His cock pressed into
her soft belly, sending a twisting sensation through her insides that left her breathless.
“Even if ye are a Robertson, I’d be a fool if I did nae admire the fact that ye are
innocent. Nae every lass has the restraint to keep herself pure.”
“Nae every man either,” she accused as she pressed against his chest. All she accomplished
was a new understanding of how his chest felt. There were ridges of muscle beneath
the fabric of the shirt, and she enjoyed the feel of them.
“Certainly nae ye,” she continued, lashing out. She knew it but couldn’t seem to temper
her anger. It was flaring up inside her, overriding everything else. She suddenly
realized that she wasn’t angry. She was frightened. Of herself. She liked his embrace,
his scent, and the way he touched her.
Sweet Christ. How could I?
“A man weds later than a woman.” He threaded his fingers through her hair to cup her
nape. “His nature still demands the comfort only a woman’s body can provide.”
The flicker of heat in his eyes fascinated her. Along with a knowing glint that suggested
he knew exactly what she was thinking. The hard outline of his cock was turning her
insides to molten liquid. She felt empty, her hips twitching toward his out of pure
“It seems ye are quick enough at learning the art of seduction,” he said, his hand
smoothing down her back to cup her bottom for a long moment. She felt suspended in
that moment, so aware of him she ached.
Bhaic suddenly released her as though he was fighting against opening his arms.
Ailis fell back, tumbling into the center of the bed in a jumble of limbs. She rolled
over and felt the brush of the night air on her thighs. With a kick, she turned over
again and pushed her chemise down to cover her legs.
“I do nae care how sweet ye smell. If I bed ye, I must keep ye,” he said through his
teeth, looking every bit as ferocious as she’d been raised to believe he was.
“Brute,” she accused softly. “Ye should keep yer hands from me, since ye do nae care
for me as yer wife.”
He shrugged but reached down to pull something out of his boot. “Perhaps I am, but
ye will nae snare me into consummating this marriage. The earl may claim he’ll return,
but I doubt he’ll march an army into the Highlands when he hears we’ve annulled our
union. We need only wait a season.”
The candlelight flickered off a thin blade. He lifted his leg and placed his foot
in the center of the bed. A quick motion of his hand, and bright red blood dropped
onto the creamy surface of the sheet. The fabric soaked it up, making each drop wider
as the fibers absorbed the fluid. When there was a good-sized splotch, he pulled his
leg back and replaced the dagger.
The scent of fresh blood mixed with the beeswax of the candle. The wind blew in, but
she didn’t shiver with cold. Instead, she shook with relief. It swept through her,
leaving her nothing but a quivering mass. She sat down, unable to hold herself up
“Thank ye.” The words left her mouth before she realized she was going to speak. It
was another one of those uncontrolled responses he seemed to be able to solicit from
her. It was frustrating, but she was too relieved to worry about the means of her
Only that she had been rescued. He was a most unexpected champion, but welcome nonetheless.
She looked up and found him watching her, curiosity and a question in his eyes. So
she looked away and slid her feet beneath the comforter. The goose down was wonderfully
heavy and warm. She shivered and reached for the edge of it to pull it up.
He made a small sound under his breath that drew her attention. He was frustrated,
his face set into hard lines as he contemplated her. Understanding hit her.
“We’re both relieved to know each of us craves an annulment, and yet shamed by the
fact that we continue our fathers’ discontentment,” she offered softly, unable to
think of a remedy for the situation. She certainly wasn’t going to suggest consummating
is the proper word,” Bhaic agreed, “for the earl is correct. Marriages have been
the traditional method of ending such feuds. I should be more open to the idea.”
He stared at her for another long moment, clearly trying to decide if he should change
his mind. Ailis found herself holding her breath as he pondered her.
He sent the comforter up and over her. The edge of the bed sagged as he sat down and
finished unlacing his boots. She heard him set them aside before he picked up the
candle and set it near the door, leaving the bed in semidarkness. The bed ropes groaned
as he lay back and settled himself beneath the comforter.
“Me brother…” she said, “is no’ an unreasonable man.”
There was a grunt from Bhaic.
“Ye both can choose what future there might be,” she continued.
The bed moved. Bhaic had rolled onto his side and propped his head into his hand as
he watched her. “As I noticed before, ye are more woman than lass, Ailis. For all
that I should praise ye for it, it would be best if I did nae take notice of it.”
He settled back down beside her. “At least no’ while ye are wearing so little, and
I have the church’s blessing to enjoy it.”
A bubble of amusement escaped from her. She just couldn’t help it.
“And now ye’re pleased with the fact that ye tax me,” he groused.
“I admit I’d never have thought such a thing before this moment,” she answered. “Ye
are Bhaic MacPherson, after all.”
“And ye, Ailis Robertson are in bed…with me,” he said good-naturedly. “A brow-raising
situation if ever there was one. Any man that might have suggested such a possibility
would have earned himself the title of liar from me.”