Two hotheaded Highlanders, the offspring of feuding lairds, are tricked by the King's Regent into a desperate choice: marry or die. Bhaic MacPherson is more disposed to lead his clan into battle than stay married to the daughter of his enemy. But perhaps the intensity of his feelings has more to do with desire than hostility.
Ailis Robertson wanted a husband, not a savagebut when her family was faced with a deadly ultimatum, she had no choice. How can she fight her fate when the union of a MacPherson and a Robertson could end three generations of hostilities between the two families? Perhaps bitter rivals can become something more when they start to recognize that they're not so different after all...
It surely was. The moon was full and looked like a glowing ball across the lake. All of the stars were in view, but without the harshness of biting wind.
"Aye, a truly stunning sight."
Bhaic wasn't looking at the view. He was watching her. She turned her face toward his, drawn to the husky promise in his voice...
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"Ye're as headstrong as yer mother was."
Ailis stretched up to kiss her father on the cheek before flashing his captain a smile of victory. Her father rolled his eyes then offered her a hand to help her up onto the back of her mare. The horse tossed its mane as Ailis took the reins in a steady grip.
Laird Liam Robertson's beard was gray and thin, but he still held himself proudly as two hundred of his men assembled to ride out with him. Behind them, Robertson Castle basked in the golden light of morning. The hills were green, and the sound of rushing water filled the airthe rivers were full with melting snow. It was too soon for heather or flowers, but Ailis could smell the changing season in the air. She lifted her face and let the sun warm her nose for the first time in weeks. She was tired of having to huddle close to the hearth to chase the cold from her flesh or pull her wrap up to avoid the frigid wind.
"I was invited," Ailis reminded her father.
"So ye were, but I do no' like the maneven if he is the king's regenttelling me how to direct me own daughter. His business should be with me. No' a woman."
Her father puffed out his chest in a display of authority, but she could see the acquiescence in his eyes. He may not have agreed with the new regent, but he did like to grant her requests when there was no solid reason to deny her.
It made it so easy to love him. She smiled, and he groaned, his Highlander pride requiring some form of bluster to make sure everyone knew he'd at least argued against complying completely with the summons.
"Maybe the man will take the tale of how fetching ye are back to court. It's time ye wed," the laird continued.
"Of course it is, Father," Ailis agreed demurely.
Her father pointed at the twinkle in her eyes. "Just like yer mother," he accused, then climbed onto the back of his horse. "I had to court her for two seasons before she agreed to me suit." He held up two time-weathered fingers. "Two! As if I had naught better to do with me time."
The Robertson retainers making ready to ride laughed with their laird.
The men were looking forward to the journey. They wanted to stretch their legs too. Highlanders might enjoy telling stories by the fireside, but their true love was creating those tales. They jested with one another as their kilts swayed with their motions. The horses shook their heads, adjusting to their bridles and stamping impatiently on the cobblestones in the inner yard. Ailis's mother had insisted on the cobblestones, to keep the mud out of the castle. Ailis had heard the Grants were going to lay stone during the summer because it worked so well.
She lifted her chin and inhaled the scent of new greenery. The last thing she had on her mind was a husband. Ailis was almost sure her father agreed with her, but as a daughter of the laird, it was her duty to think of alliances. So her sire would make the expected comments from time to time. The truth was he didn't want her to go anywhere, and the stack of offers sitting in his study remained untouched. No regent needed to carry tales about her back to court. Offers had been arriving since she'd turned fifteen. But in the last two years, her father hadn't opened a single one, only asked her if he should.
That was a blessingone many girls didn't enjoy. She looked at the men making ready to ride out with her father, searching among their hard bodies for anything that might stir a longing inside her for marriage.
All she felt was a sense of approval for their forms.
Well, at least she was not repulsed by men. She just wasn't overly interested in them. So marriage could wait another season.
But going out for a springtime ride to meet the Earl of Morton at the abbey sounded fine. She adored her childhood home, but the winter had been long, and she wanted to walk and feel the sun on her skin.
She would be very happy to return when their meeting was concluded.
* * *
Laird Shamus MacPherson wasn't one to admit that his hair was thinning. But he had taken to wearing a thick wool bonnet, even when sitting at his desk in his study while a fire crackled behind him in the hearth. Bhaic MacPherson watched his father read the message in front of him and growl at it.
"I'll go see the new regent meself," Shamus decided.
Bhaic didn't interrupt. Shamus MacPherson was busy poking the Earl of Morton's summons where it lay on the table. "Bloody waste of time. How like a lowlander regent to think everyone has time to squander on foolish ceremonies, such as riding down from the Highlands to reaffirm the peace. As if I do nae know who me king is!"
"I'll be riding with ye, Father," Bhaic told his sire and laird.
Shamus looked at him and frowned. "I refuse to let that man waste yer time as well. It will fall on yer shoulders soon enough, this duty to ignore what truly needs doing in favor of riding off to meet with whatever man has managed to bribe enough fellow councillors to gain the position of regent. It is nae as if we've had a king that lasted any too long."
"At least we have a king, and no' his mother."
Bhaic answered his father in a firm tone. "Do nae scold me for saying what everyone is thinking. I'm a Highlander, nae some lowland Scot more concerned with appearances than maintaining his honor."
His father nodded, pride lighting his eyes. "Ye are right there, me lad. Right as rain in the summer." Shamus stood up, tugging his doublet down. "Mary Stuart may have been a queen of Scotland, but it's a king we really need. So we will have to put up with regents until young James is old enough to manage. I'll do me duty and ride out to meet his regent, and judge his mood. Maybe this one will last until the boy is grown."
"I would nae count too much upon that," Bhaic warned his father. "The earl is the fourth regent, and the king is only seven years old." He stood and shook out his shoulders. "So I'll be going along to meet this regent. I want a look at him meself."
"Very well, no doubt that's wise," his father said as he came around the table and walked toward the doors that opened into the great hall. Two MacPherson retainers stood guard, reaching up to pull on their bonnets when their laird appeared. Shamus started down the aisle toward the doors with a determined pace, the maids they passed all lowering themselves before returning to the duty of clearing away the remains of the morning meal. The great hall was still full of long tables and benches that welcomed all the inhabitants of the castle at mealtimes.
"Yes, it's wise of ye to ride along with me to meet this regent," Shamus continued for the benefit of those listening. "Ye are making sure ye are seen, so there will be no question who will become the next laird of the MacPhersons."
"There never was a question of that, Father, and it is nae why I am riding out with ye," Bhaic stated. "It's because ye are me laird, no' just me sire."
His father turned and winked. "But, me boy, I fully enjoyed begetting ye!"
There were a few muffled chuckles from the retainers close enough to hear. Shamus's eyes twinkled with merriment as he finished making his way to the huge double doors of the outer wall.
The yard beyond the open doors of the keep was full of horses already. MacPherson retainers were busy making ready to ride out with their laird. Many of the lowland Scots had taken to wearing britches instead of kilts, but the MacPherson men wore their colors proudly.
Bhaic grinned. The lowland Scots called him a savage, but he enjoyed knowing they feared him. His colors were a constant reminder that he was part of something more than just his own family. No man wore the colors of the MacPherson without earning the right by conducting himself with honor. There was no greater shame to a Highlander than being stripped of his kilt.
The lowland Scots were welcome to their britches. Let their regent see the MacPhersons in their kilts.
He was a MacPherson and a Highlander. Let them worry about his mood.
* * *
The Earl of Morton was a rough man.
He'd seen his share of the harder side of life. That fact accounted for the task he was embarking on today. He'd dressed for the occasion, wearing a thick leather over-doublet to protect against smaller blades.
He lifted one gauntlet-clad hand and pointed at the forest surrounding the abbey. "Make sure our men are posted along that line of trees. I want musket and pike therethese Highlanders must know they are surrounded, or we'll have a bloodbath."
"Might have that anyway," his captain remarked. "They are Highlanders. Not likely to bend."
"Today, they are going to put being Scotsmen above their clan loyalties."
The captain didn't correct his noble lord, but he surely didn't agree with the man. Highlanders were different. Only a man living inside a palace would be so naive about that.
* * *
Ailis leaned low over the neck of her mare when the abbey came into view. The older portion, which had been built a century before, was crumbling. She tucked in her heels and let the horse have its freedom. The animal raced down the hill, across the meadow, and through the remaining arches of the old medieval church.
"Ailis!" her father scolded, still up on the hillside where the forest thinned.
She lifted her arm and waved to him, then slid from the saddle with a happy smile on her lips.
The tone of her father's voice had changed. It sent a chill down her spine, and she turned to look back. His retainers were surging down the hillside, their teeth bared and their kilts flapping with the motion of their horses. They were riding hard, but there was no way to reach her before the men waiting behind her made their move.
She jumped back, making a grab for her horse, but one of them had already taken the animal's reins, which left her facing six men. She pulled a small dagger from where she'd tucked it in the top of her sleeve.
They converged on her. She got off only one jab before she was trapped. She struggled against the hold on her arms, straining to break free, but she knew it was hopeless. She'd ridden straight into a trapand her kin were honor bound to try and rescue her.
Ye are such a fool!
Berating herself didn't change the fact that there were hard fingers digging into her flesh. Or that she could smell the scent of horses and gunpowder on her captors. The sun shone cheerfully, and the grass was growing, but she felt the cold kiss of steel against her throat.
It seemed surreal, like a dream spun in her ear by a fae while she napped on the grass in the afternoon of a long summer day.
But the men holding her were real. Their breeches frightened her the most because it meant they were not Highlanders. She strained against their hold, snarling as she tried to break free.
"Stay back if you do not want her blood spilled!" the one holding her said.
Her heart was pounding, and sweat trickled down the side of her face from her struggle, but the blade against her throat was too terrifying to fight against. She could feel how sharp it was, feel it already slicing into the surface of her tender skin.
"Hold!" her father yelled. The first of his retainers had made it to the arches. They jumped from their saddles and had their swords drawn before her father's voice halted their impulse to rescue her. They froze, pure, raw fury in their eyes.
Guilt fell on her like a stone. It was crushing, burning its way through her as she witnessed the distress she'd caused by being impulsive. There would be blood spilled, and it was her fault for leaving her escort behind.
She'd known the cost of such recklessness since she was eight years old and had made the mistake of wandering during a spring festival. The memory normally chilled her blood; today, it was already near freezing.
"The earl is waiting for you, Laird Robertson," her captor said.
"I will nae be meeting with a man who sends his men to put a blade to me daughter's throat!" her father declared.
"Your daughter is in no danger."
Ailis shifted her gaze to find the newcomer. He stood over to one side, flanked by a dozen men with black-powder guns all aimed at her father and kin.
"I do nae agree with ye, boy," her father retorted. "Tell yer men to get their hands off me child. I thought it was only the bloody MacPhersons we had to worry about."
"How very interesting to hear you say that name." The man gestured to the men holding her, and they marched her toward him. "I am the Earl of Morton, Regent for James VI of Scotland." He studied her for a long moment before looking past her to her father. "Let us go inside to discuss this."
Ailis didn't have any choice. She was muscled through the garden that fed the inhabitants of the abbey and into the kitchens.
The bruising grips on her arms didn't bother her half as much as the knowledge that her kin were being drawn after her. Better her throat had been slit in the garden.
For now, she was the bait.
"Do nae" She turned her head and screamed, but the man holding her clamped his hand over her mouth, smothering her warning.
Aye, she'd rather be dead than watch her father's men coming after her.
She deserved death for being so foolish.
But she very much feared that she was going to be forced to live through the consequences of her actions.
* * *
"Bloody Robertsons," a MacPherson retainer snarled.
"At least we do nae hide behind skirts," a Robertson growled back.
Ailis looked over to see the other side of the church filled with the tartan of her father's enemy, the MacPherson. More men stood guard over them with long muskets. The MacPhersons looked as furious as her kin did. But they were outnumbered by the earl's men, who surrounded the entire abbey, more of them posted in the alcoves above to ensure they had a clear shot at their prisoners.
"Regent or nae, ye're a bloody coward." Her father's voice bounced around the inside the abbey. It was built of dark stone, making it seem like a cave. The stained glass windows served only to darken the sanctuary even further. The earl's men removed the blade from her throat and marched her up the aisle to the front pew.
"What I am is a man set on a course of action," the earl said as he stood at the front of the church. There wasn't a hint of remorse in his expression. Two priests stood at the altar, their fingers moving on the prayer beads hanging from their belts.
"Only a coward uses a man's daughter," her father protested.
"Or a man who is ready to crawl out of the barbaric traditions you Highlanders cling to," the earl answered. "I needed your attention, and now I have it."
"I'll nae leave behind me honor in favor of a man who hides behind a woman," one of the MacPhersons argued. He stood up, boldly offering his chest to the gunners.
"Instead, you would all continue to fight over something that happened more than three generations ago?" the earl asked.
Ailis found herself biting her lower lip. It was the truth, and she was slightly shamed when she was forced to hear it spoken aloud. Three generations was a long timethere was no denying it.
"It's none of yer concern," the MacPherson insisted. He was a large man, with midnight-black hair. Unlike a number of his clansmen, his face was scraped clean. Attached to the side of his bonnet were three feathers, two of them pointing straight up. It was Laird Shamus MacPherson's son, Bhaic, which accounted for his boldness. He would be the next Laird MacPherson. The feathers confirmed that he was the clan Tanis. It was more than blood that put him in line for the lairdship; the rest of the clan's leaders had voted him into the position.
"Join Mistress Ailis in the front pew," the earl ordered.
Bhaic smiled, showing off even white teeth, and crossed his arms over his chest. He had his shirtsleeves pulled up, granting her a view of his muscular arms. A touch of heat stroked her cheeks, and she looked back at the earl.
"Shoot me where I stand," Bhaic taunted. "If ye've got the balls to."
"Mind yer mouth, MacPherson, me daughter is present."
Bhaic shrugged. "I am nae the fool who brought a woman along."
"The Regent is the one who insisted me daughter come along!" her father protested. "For a man who thinks we Highlanders are stuck in the Middle Ages, Lord Morton, ye are the one acting like a savage. I never thought to question the terms of yer message as if ye were some sort of English scum."
"I find myself agreeing with Laird Robertson." Bhaic sat back down in defiance of the earl's demand. "So now that I am completely disgusted, what do ye want, Regent?"
"An end to this feud," the earl informed them.
A ripple went through the sanctuary, the scuffing of boot heels against the stone floor as the men shifted, the reality of their long feud shaming more of them than would be willing to admit it was so.
The earl didn't miss it either.
"The crown and the king will no longer tolerate unrest in the Highlands," Morton informed them.
"What are ye planning to do?" her father demanded. "Kill us all?" He chuckled ominously. "Ye'll nae be the first nobleman who fails at that task."
The abbey was full of laughter, the sound bouncing between the dark stone walls.
"Come here, mistress," the earl demanded.
Ailis wanted to refuse, but that felt cowardly. Bhaic was standing up to the man, so she would as well.
"Stay where ye are, Daughter," her father ordered.
She stood, earning another round of laughter from the MacPhersons.
"Seems ye are as good at teaching yer children respect as ye are at fighting, Robertson!"
Ailis turned around, her skirts flying up to reveal her ankles. She glared at Bhaic MacPherson.
"I am no more afraid of this lowlander than ye are," she said in a tone that would have pleased even her stern tutor. Her chin was steady and her voice even without a hint of sharpness, just clear determination.
The grin on his face faded, and for just a moment, his expression became one of approval. But she turned and walked toward the earl. She had to fend off the impulse to perform a reverence, because it was such an ingrained courtesy. But he would not receive such politeness from hereven if he was a nobleman. There were plenty who would warn her against such prideful ways, but she had been raised in the Highlands. Respect was earned. And the earl had abandoned polite behavior, so she would as well.
She spoke evenly once more. "I'll not be lowering meself before a man who ordered a blade put to me throat."
His lips twitched in response. For a moment, he studied her, running his gaze up and down her length. When his gaze met with hers again, there was a pleased look flickering in them. He was different than the other noblemen she'd met. There was a rough edge to him that struck a warning bell inside her. He was ruthless and unashamed of it. This man had not been raised with servants trailing his heels. He'd dirtied his hands more than once. She was certain of it.
That made him very dangerous.
"Look through those windows, mistress, and tell me what you see."
A knot was tightening in her belly, pulling tighter as she turned and looked where he pointed. Beyond the sides of the abbey, there were more of the earl's men, set apart by their britches. They held a line of horses steady beneath thick tree branches; more men stood ready with nooses above the animals.
She felt as though her throat was closing shut.
"Have you lost your courage, Lady?" the earl inquired.
"I have nae," she countered, but her voice cracked, betraying her horror.
"Enough. Let the lass be." Bhaic stood back up. "If ye want a fight, man, I'll be happy to give it to ye, since ye've gone to so much trouble to get us all here."
"Like hell!" her father shouted. "She's me daughter, and I'll be the one doing the fighting, since me sons are nae here."
Ailis gulped down a breath and fought to find her strength before her father lunged across the pews at Bhaicand unleashed a bloodbath.
"There is a row of horses with nooses dangling above the empty saddles," Ailis forced out. "Every detail set for an execution."
The abbey went silent as her words reached every last man. All hints of teasing dissipated, and more than one man looked at the gunners and began to judge his chances. Better to die trying to live than wait for someone to slap the flank of a horse while you felt the bite of the noose around your neck.
"This feud ends here," the earl informed them. "None of ye recall the reason it began."
"I do," her father insisted. "It was a MacPherson who murdered me grandfather."
"Only after he tried to steal the bride of me own grandfather!" Shamus MacPherson argued, pointing at Liam Robertson. "But it was the money he was trying to steal the most."
"Me kin are nae thieves!" her father roared. "She found yer grandfather's bed cold, and that's a fact!"
Suddenly the men in the pews didn't care about the guns trained on them. They were ready to tear one another limb from limb. Over three hundred Highlanders began to surge to their feet, but a blast from one of the muskets sobered them. The scent of the black powder was thick, mixing with the beeswax lingering from the morning mass.
"You will end this feud," the earl demanded. "Scotland needs unity. England's virgin queen is earning the wrath of most of the continent with her Protestant ways. If we do not want to find ourselves invaded, we will present a united front to the rest of the world. There will be peace between the MacPhersons and the Robertsons so we might all be Scots."
"I suppose if ye hang us all, there might be." It was Bhaic who spoke up, his voice strong and steady.
"I find meself agreeing with a MacPherson," her father groused. "May me father forgive me and no' rise from his grave to torment me."
The earl was looking at Ailis. She felt the weight of his gaze, the knot in her belly becoming unbearable.
"Your father's fate is in your hands, mistress. I leave the choice to you, since they are still intent on fighting, even with the odds clearly against them."
"I am one person," she answered slowly, a tingle touching her nape. "What is it ye suggest I do?"
The earl offered her a direct look. One that left no doubt in her mind as to how deadly serious he was. If she failed, he'd hang her kin as she watched. She swallowed the lump lodged in her throat.
"Ye are the laird's daughter. Alliances are made through highborn daughters," the earl informed her. He pointed at the altar. "Kneel and take vows of marriage with Bhaic MacPherson, or watch your father and his captains hang. Either way, you shall kneel in prayer."
She gagged. Her jaw fell open, and she couldn't seem to close it. So she clasped a hand over her mouth, trying not to retch.
"She will nae do it," her father snarled.
"Me son will have no part of any wedding with a Robertson!" Shamus MacPherson declared from the pews.
The earl gripped her arm and sent her stumbling toward the priests.
The earl spoke directly to Bhaic. "Then your son will live with the knowledge that he sentenced you and your captains to their deaths. My marksmen have been told whom to spare. If you choose death, your son will live with the knowledge that he stood by and allowed it to happen."
The gunners were looking down the length of their muskets, the smoldering rope they used to touch off the powder in their weapons held securely in their fingers. They had the ends of those deadly guns cradled in iron holders to help bear the weight and make sure their aim was true. She could see the men in the pews, all trying to calculate their odds of escaping. The first one to move would die; the only chance to flee would be during the melee.
It was a sickening thought, but one she couldn't dismiss. Highlanders had died in groups before, and at the hands of their fellow Scots too. She looked out the windows at the horses, the nooses nauseating her again.
She looked back over her shoulder at Bhaic.
He was everything she detested. Hardened. Huge. Devil-dark hair and ice-cold blue eyes. Her father's sworn enemy, and his father hated her. He was glaring at her, hatred tightening his features. She fought to keep her own revulsion from showing.
She had to. The earl would keep his word. She had no doubt on that matter. None at all.
"It is a simple enough choice, madam. Prayers for the living or for the dead. Make your choice," the earl instructed her.
What a poor marriage it would be. Bhaic hated her: not her nature, but her blood.
But she couldn't be so selfish.
Better to be hated than live with bloodstained hands.
She climbed to the altar and forced herself to kneel. It felt as though her knees broke beneath the effort. Staying there took every last bit of self-control she had.
"A most sensible choice," the earl muttered.
"Me son will nae be wedding that Robertson," Shamus MacPherson insisted.
"That's on account of the fact that MacPhersons are too bloody selfish to think of anything but their own gain," Ailis's father announced. "Me daughter is near gagging, but she will nae put herself above me life. Curse and rot ye, Morton, for using a lass so."
"Me son is naught to gag over!" Shamus growled. "I've got plenty of offers."
"And the only one that matters is mine," the earl interrupted. "I offer to end this feud through a marriage, or wipe out the lot of you who continue to persist in fighting over something your grandparents did. Captain, make ready to fire."
"Ye'll have yer way, Lord Morton."
Ailis flinched, the timbre of Bhaic's tone cutting through her resolve. Panic was trying to take hold of her, the urge to bolt almost overwhelming. She gripped handfuls of her skirt, squeezing until her fingers ached.
"At least today ye will," Bhaic stated, "because ye are right about one thing: I will nae stand here and watch me clansmen die while I do nae face the same danger. But I say ye are a coward to fight yer battles through the use of a woman and a musket leveled at me father."
"Alliances have been made through marriage since the dawn of time. Even in the Highlands," the earl said. "Ye'll wed that girl and end this feud because your children will share blood."
Oh, hellfire. They would have to beget those babes together.
She couldn't lay with Bhaic MacPherson!
Ailis started to stand, losing the battle to kneel so submissively. She could feel Bhaic closing the distance. Her heart was pounding, feeling as if it might burst.
But a hard hand caught her wrist before she made it very far off the hassock. Bhaic cursed low and long in Gaelic, earning a scathing look from the priest.
"Keep yer hands off me," she hissed and jerked her hands in front of her.
He cut her a mocking look as the priest began the opening prayer. "That will make for an agreeable marriage as far as I am concerned," he replied.
She felt the color drain from her face. Ailis looked toward the priest, but seeing him perform the motions of the sacrament of marriage gave her no relief at all. She glanced back toward Bhaic, and saw once again the horses waiting beneath the row of nooses.
She was caught, just like a rabbit.
It was a horrible feeling, made even worse by the sight of Bhaic MacPherson kneeling next to her. His tartan was something she'd been raised to hate and fear. She'd seen many a widow weeping because his clan had fought with hers. The great hall of Robertson Castle rang with curses against them so often, the priest on Robertson land no longer gave out penance for them.
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 wife?"
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 enough.
"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 wished.
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.
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 the staff.
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 unspoiled child.
"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 easy line.
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 good night."
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 a MacPherson!"
"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 regent.
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 hershe 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.
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 here."
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 straightened up.
"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 ye 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 else.
"I suppose the man has a valid point," Bhaic said, his tone clearly displeased but nonetheless accepting. "A very good one."