Authors: Kimberly Killion
A thunderous pounding on the door jarred her awake hours later. “Maggie! ’Tis bluidy noontide!”
Who in the bleating hell is that?
Exhausted, Effie reached behind her to wake Magnus, but the bed was empty.
Effie bolted out of warm covers and tottered on unsteady legs. Her aching body protested her attempts to dress while the woman on the other side of the door continued to shout demands at the top of her lungs.
Effie pushed wild red locks from her face and tried to control a temper that was quickly rising. She was ready to cut the woman’s tongue out by the time Effie ripped the door open. “What in God’s name is all the fuss about?”
Magnus’ mother stood on the other side cloaked in a blue and green
. Her dark eyes rounded instantly. “Lady Reay!”
Oh bleating hell. Effie’s gut fell to her toes.
If Satan’s wife had a name, Effie suspected it might be Lady Katherine Sutherland. After all, this was the woman who’d spawned the Devil of Dunrobin. The stories Sylvie had told Effie made her more than wary, especially since Lady Katherine hadn’t troubled herself to speak more than two words to Effie since her arrival. She didn’t know whether to bow or throw herself out the nearest window.
Lady Katherine covered her nose with the scrap of linen clutched in her bony hand, no doubt repulsed by the scents of lovemaking wafting out of the solar. Her gaze flitted over Effie’s shoulder toward the unmade bed. “Where is my son?”
“He’s not here,” Effie stated the obvious, feeling very small in this woman’s presence.
Accusing black eyes swept over Effie’s disheveled attire from her mussed hair to her bare toes. “I will send a maid to assist ye with your morning ablutions. When ye are presentable, I wish to speak to ye in the chapel.” She spun on her heel and disappeared into the corridor.
Effie fell against the door as she shut it and emptied her lungs in a long exhale. She knew she would have demons to face. At least she would face this particular demon in God’s house. With any luck, Magnus would return before she had to face the devil.
He did not.
As Effie entered the dank chapel, she vowed to tie him to the rafters and beat him with a switch upon his return. Of course, he would likely enjoy such a punishment.
Shaking her head, she pushed the wicked thoughts from her mind, smoothed the pleats of her borrowed kirtle and positioned herself next to Lady Katherine in the front pew. “Ye wished to speak to me, m’lady.”
“I want ye to leave.” Lady Katherine’s façade was as cold as the air seeping into the chapel.
“I have no intention of leaving.” Effie drew a breath of courage. “I’m going to marry your son. He has chosen me to be his wife.”
Lady Katherine’s eyes remained fixed on the stone crucifix hanging over the altar. “He will hurt ye. He will not be faithful to ye, and will most likely die before he can teach his sons to wield a sword.”
Foreboding coiled around Effie’s spine. The woman managed to collect all of Effie’s fears in a single sentence. She was cruel and callous and heartless. The indignation that heated Effie’s blood came as a surprise. What right did this woman have to speak to her with such malice? “Are ye predicting my future, or retelling your past?”
Lady Katherine’s chin snapped over her shoulder. “Do not begin to think ye know anything about me or my past.”
Effie had lived long enough to know a number of people who thrived on sharing their misery. Lady Katherine was one of them. “Mayhap ye should enlighten me.”
“I have dedicated my life to serving this clan. I bore four sons to an unfaithful husband and I’ve buried three of the four.”
“It seems we have more in common than ye think, Lady Katherine.” Effie shared her hardships with the woman, hoping to gain her empathy, but she wouldn’t bend.
“Ye have suffered a great deal which is all the more reason why ye should leave and protect yourself from future afflictions.” Lady Katherine’s lips pursed. She was mulish and bitter. In truth, Effie pitied her.
“I wish ye felt differently and can only hope time will lessen your animosity toward me.”
“At your age, time is not something ye have an abundance of. Ye jeopardize the livelihood of my people because ye fancy yourself smitten with my son. You’re a selfish, foolish girl.” Her insults pushed Effie over the edge.
“Nay, I am a woman who is wise enough to know I have no wish to end up alone like ye.”
A vein pulsed in Lady Katherine’s temple, her jaw pinched tight. She stood and looked down her nose at Effie. “Ye have been duly warned, Lady Reay. Ye tell your brother we will not fight his war until Clan Sutherland has a male issue.”
Effie’s face puckered. “What war?”
“The war against Clan Ross.” Lady Katherine raised her skirt and strode out of the chapel.
Magnus dismounted his destrier and landed in a snowdrift that reached his thighs. He was freezing, exhausted and on the verge of deciding this had been a fool’s quest. Moonlight glittered off a blanket of snow and lighted the way to the kirk. He should have been back to Dunrobin by now, but the two-day ride to Saint Duthac had taken six.
He sighed, now regretting not telling anyone where he was going, but he’d wanted to surprise Effie. With a gloved fist, he banged on the doors and decided it would be worth the trek. It would please Effie to be married by a priest in the church.
“But I would wager she is cursing me now.” He patted the neck of his trusted stallion and thought of the night he’d spent making love to Effie. While those memories had kept him warm on his journey, they hadn’t filled his belly.
A small iron plate slid open on the peephole, then shut, just before the arched doors opened inward with a whoosh.
“Laird Sutherland!” Father O’Rourke protected his nose and mouth from the harsh wind and urged Magnus inside. “What are ye doing traveling in weather like this?”
“I need a priest.” Magnus removed his gloves and blew hot air into his cold hands.
“Are ye dying, laddie?” Father O’Rourke held his lantern high and inspected Magnus for wounds.
“I’m not dying, Father. I’m getting married.”
“Come.” Robes flowing, Father O’Rourke led Magnus to the rectory and instructed a young boy to tend his horse. Magnus peeled away his outer layers and accepted a bowl of warm barley from an elder matron while Father O’Rourke lowered himself into a high-back chair beside the hearth. He scratched his white beard and gave Magnus a disapproving look. “Is the girl with child?”
“I hope so,” Magnus answered honestly. He held no desire to lie to a priest. There were enough sins on his soul.
“Why the urgency? Why would ye risk so much to fetch me in this weather?”
“I have my reasons.” Magnus warmed his hands by the fire. “For one, I wish to have our union blessed to legitimize a male issue, should my new wife be fortunate enough to give me one. For another, it has been well over a year since your last visit to Dunrobin and we’ve a great number of bairns who are awaiting baptism. And lastly, my kinsmen are in need of confessions, for I fear we may be faced with another war soon.” As much as Magnus hated the thought of going up against Clan Ross, he feared there was no other way to appease Ian Mackay.
The auld priest fidgeted with the rosary hanging from his belt. “Who is she, the girl?”
“Ian Mackay’s eldest sister, Euphema Reay.”
“Effie?” Father O’Rourke leaned forward in his chair, his bushy white brows furrowed above his pale eyes.
“Aye.” Magnus nodded and smiled as pride warmed his chest. “Ye know her?”
“I buried her kin, each and all. Forgive me for saying so, but isn’t Effie a wee bit beyond her years?”
“Nay, she is not.” Magnus’ scowl must have been fierce for the priest eased out of his chair and moved to stand behind a pine desk.
“Effie is afflicted by her past. She has many ghosts chasing her.”
“Think ye I dinnae know this?”
“Do ye?” Father O’Rourke’s disdainful look was one Magnus had seen many times before on Mam.
He blew a frustrated breath. “I dinnae just bed her if that’s what you’re insinuating.”
“’Tis exactly what I’m insinuating.” The man no longer looked afraid. His desire to protect Effie gave him a sizable pair of bollocks. “I dinnae wish to see her hurt, again.”
“Nor do I.” Magnus crossed his arms and awaited the priest’s next words.
Father O’Rourke angled his head and twisted his lips this way and that. He contemplated long moments before he finally responded, “Verra well, then. We will travel to Dunrobin at first thaw.”
Magnus stepped forward and leaned over the desk, intentionally trying to intimidate the man. “Forgive me, Father, but I am not willing to wait so long. We leave on the morrow. And dinnae think I won’t tie ye to my steed, because I will.”
“Lady Reay! Lady Reay!” Lainie and Laura raced through the kitchen holding their plaid skirts off the flour-dusted floor. “Come quickly. Uncle Maggie is back!”
Oh thank heaven! Effie’s entire being sank with relief. She threw the dough she’d been kneading onto the work table, wiped her hands on her apron and rushed out of the kitchen behind Magnus’ nieces. Now that she knew he was safe, relief shifted to anger. He’d abandoned her for fourteen bleating days and she had no idea where he’d gone. No one knew where he’d gone. Not even Lady Katherine.
Years of insecurity had her fretting from dawn to dusk. She’d tried not to let her worries consume her, tried not to assume he’d left to prepare for Ian’s war, but each night, after she’d made love to him in her dreams, she awoke to the horror that he might never return. That terror had been so familiar, she’d almost taken Lady Katherine’s advice and returned home. Effie didn’t know if she could bear the upset of losing her heart to another warrior, but feared the deed was already done.
It hadn’t helped that she’d suffered her monthly courses. Knowing she’d failed to conceive an heir hadn’t gone unnoticed by Lady Katherine’s maids, which gained her no favor with Magnus’ mam. The woman remained cold and aloof toward Effie, but flaunted her approval of Vanna before the Sutherland kinswomen. The two had become thick as thieves, planning, plotting, preparing for the future. They’d toured the grounds together and were already making arrangements to renovate the lady’s solar in the west wing. Sylvie and Jocelyn had been Effie’s only confidants, and for that she was grateful.
Thunderous footsteps filled the stairwell as Magnus’ kin rushed to the Great Hall. The hum of excitement buzzed in Effie’s ears as she half walked, half jogged through the maze of corridors.
Then a thick brawny arm reached between the blue velvet curtains of an antechamber and snatched her off her feet. Darkness blinded her. Panic stole a beat of her heart, but she quickly recognized Magnus’ scent and the strength of his arms now coiled around her.
“I missed ye fiercely, Effie.” His mouth came down hard on hers and matched the intensity of his embrace.
For a brief moment she succumbed to the power that was him and only him. She surrendered to his kiss, his touch, his demanding hands, then she cupped his jaw and found the thick beard that had grown in his absence. Her temper surged out of the trenches of desire. She pushed him back. “I know about Ian’s war.”