Wee Williams Woman | Chapter 6 of 7

Author: Suzan Tisdale | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1313 Views | Add a Review

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Sixteen

Arline, Rowan and Lily settled into a tidy routine over the next week. Lily would come bounding into his room to wake him each morn by jumping up and down on his bed and giving him kisses. It wasn’t the jumping up and down that was unusual, it was the hour in which his daughter woke that was so odd.

With Lady Arline taking the reins of governess, she was able to gain a level of control over Lily that Rowan had failed to master after more than four years. Although he was quite grateful that his daughter’s manners had improved, that she was eating her vegetables without much complaining, and that over all, her mood had improved considerably, he was left feeling a touch inadequate as a father. Arline had managed to do in just a few short days, what he had been trying to do for years.

Admittedly there were times when he felt a tad jealous of Arline. Often, Lily would run to Arline with her questions and her fears. As far as Rowan knew, Lily’s bad dreams had stopped. She no longer climbed into bed with him in the middle of the night seeking comfort and protection. Though he was glad the dreams no longer haunted her, Rowan missed holding his daughter and chasing away the ghosts of her nightmares.

As the days passed by he began to feel less needed and he did not care for it at all. He could not be angry with either Lily or Arline. Arline was doing exactly what he had asked her to do. She was taking excellent care of his daughter, teaching her how to be a lady. Lily was even learning her letters and could read a few words by sight now.

His daughter was happy, safe, and content. How had Arline been able to accomplish all of that in such a short time? Though grateful, there were times when it gnawed at his fatherly pride.

One of the other positive things to come out of having Lady Arline as Lily’s governess was that it did free up good portions of his days. It allowed him more time to spend on clan business and to visit with his clansmen who lived further out on Graham lands.

But mayhap the nicest benefit was that he was able to spend time with both Lily and Lady Arline at the noonin’ meal each day and the evening meal each night. Aye, spending time with Lady Arline was worth the bruised father ego.

As promised, Selina had created a beautiful gown of emerald green that fit Arline perfectly. Arline was still far too skinny for her own good, but she was eating good meals now and Rowan hoped that she would be able to put on more weight. The dark circles under her eyes had rapidly faded and her skin no longer held the pallor of someone long hungry and hidden from the sun.

The castle had begun to finally settle in the wake of Beatrice being summarily cast out and Mrs. McGregor being tossed into the dungeon. Rowan would have thought the woman would have given in by now, told him what she knew of Beatrice and why she had listened to her to begin with. He would visit Mrs. McGregor each morn before heading to the training fields. The result of those meetings were always the same. He’d ask her questions, she’d glower hatefully at him and spit every time he mentioned Lady Arline’s name.

He had just come in from training this morn, covered in sweat and dirt when Lily came racing up to him in the hallway. “Da!” she smiled sweetly as she ran to him. He knelt down and scooped her up and gave her a big hug. Lady Arline looked radiant as she strolled down the long hallway. Hints of the late morning sun shone in through the small windows and bounced off her auburn hair. She was wearing a new dress this morn, made from a beautiful goldenrod silk.

“And how is me lovely daughter this morn?” he asked as he gave Lily a kiss on her nose.

“I be good! Lady Arline says that since it quit rainin’ we can have a picnic outside.”

Arline had joined them, tugging Lily’s wee foot. “And what else did I tell ye?”

Lily’s smile faded. “That I hafta write me letters five times before we can have the picnic.”

Arline smiled warmly at her and then at Rowan. “And?” Arline prodded.

Lily twisted her lips and looked up at the ceiling thinking hard on it for a moment. Her smile returned when she remembered. “I remember! We have to ask Da if it is all right first.”

“Good girl,” Arline praised her. She turned to Rowan. “Would ye like to have a picnic with us? We might no’ get another opportunity for I fear the weather will be turnin’ soon.”

Their invitation brought back a memory of a happy afternoon spent with Kate. Lily was only a few weeks old and the Black Death had not yet reached their lands. He hadn’t been on a picnic since. He almost declined their offer, but seeing his daughter so happy and thinking of having some time away from the keep with Lady Arline, he surprised himself by accepting their gracious offer.

“Good!” Lady Arline said with a smile. “It will do ye good to spend some time with yer daughter.”

“Are ye no’ joinin’ us?” Rowan asked, feeling more than slightly disappointed.

“Ye’ve no’ had much time alone with Lily this past week, Rowan. I thought ye would want to be alone with her.” Arline hadn’t considered joining them. She was attempting to give Rowan time alone with his daughter. “I do no’ want to intrude.”

His lips curved into a wide smile, his dazzling and perfect white teeth sent a shiver of excitement up and down her spine. She cursed inwardly for enjoying the tickling sensation that came to her belly every time he smiled at her.

“’Twould no’ be an intrusion, me lady. ’Twould make me verra happy,” he told her. He turned to Lily, knowing full well that Arline would not be able to tell the child no. “What do ye say, Lily? Would you like Lady Arline to join us fer our picnic?”

“Aye, I would!”

Rowan felt no guilt for using his daughter to get Arline to change her mind. As he watched the loving smile come to her face when she looked at Lily, he knew she’d be joining them.

“Verra well then!” he said, growing excited about the opportunity to spend more time with Arline and his daughter. He tossed Lily into the air once, his heart filled with an overwhelming sense of joy when she squealed with delight. Carefully, he set her on her feet and patted her head.

“Ye go write yer letters while I go bathe. I be certain ye don’t want a sweaty, smelly Highlander on yer picnic!”

I find ye quite handsome all sweaty and I do no’ think ye smelly at all. I think ye smell like a strong, virile, beautiful man. Arline shooed the thoughts away. Will I ever be able to look at this man and not feel all tingly and giddy? She forced herself to remember that she was not a wanton woman. But the more time she spent with this man, the more wanton and sinful she began to feel.

Pulling on every ounce of willpower she could muster, she tried to pretend that nothing about him affected her in any way. Her stomach told her she was a liar.

 “It will no’ take her verra long, Rowan. She’s a verra smart little girl.”

“Good. Then I shall hurry. Should I meet ye in me rooms?”

 “Nay!” she nearly shouted her answer. Rowan gave her a curious look. “I mean, nay. We shall meet ye in the kitchens.”

Nay, nay, nay! Neither of us would be safe together in yer rooms, ye devil!

Rowan cast another brilliant and sinful smile her way. She had to force herself to look away for fear her legs would give out and she would turn into a puddle of jelly at his feet. She supposed that’s what most inexperienced women did, turn to jelly when they didn’t have a clue how to express themselves when around a gorgeous, handsome man such as Rowan Graham.

Deep down, she did like the way she felt when she was around him, although it was all quite confusing. The tingling sensations were enjoyable, but the shocking thoughts that raced through her mind were maddening if not embarrassing.

Ye’ve been married more than once and ye still do no’ know how to act around a man. Yer an eejit.

Their picnic had not turned out the way Rowan had envisioned it. Instead of a small, intimate affair with just him, Lady Arline and Lily, half his clan decided it was a perfect day to take the noonin meal out of doors.

He hadn’t been able to get one moment of privacy with the woman throughout the meal. They were never alone, constantly surrounded by people, or more specifically, his men.

Frederick and Daniel were especially attentive. Thomas stood nearby, watching Lady Arline closely, as if she were going to steal the silver candlesticks or Rowan’s private supply of whisky. It was plainly evident that Thomas still held some reservations about Arline.

Rowan knew it wasn’t a romantic kind of attention that the two younger men were displaying, but one forged from the time they had spent together all those years ago.

Lady Arline looked rather uncomfortable as Frederick and Daniel began to regale an audience of some twenty-five men, women and children with the story of how they had met Lady Arline.

They had just finished eating and were now enjoying the sunshine and cool autumn breeze that tickled grass and skin alike. A goodly number of Daniel and Frederick’s audience were lazing about on blankets while a few had taken felled trees as their seats.

“Och! Laddies,” Frederick said excitedly. “Ye should have seen how brave Lady Arline was the night we were attacked on our way to Stirling! As brave as any Highland warrior she was that night. Ye never heard a peep out of her as the arrows -- on fire mind ye -- went flying through the air. The bastards hit man and horse alike as they tried to kill us.”

 “Aye, everra word Frederick says is the God’s honest truth.” Daniel said as he sat on a log chewing the end of a long blade of grass. His blond hair waved in the afternoon breeze and his big blue eyes sparkled with excitement. “As brave as any warrior I ever met, she was.” He looked proudly then at Lady Arline who was sitting on a blanket next to Daniel and Frederick’s stage. Lily sat beside Arline, eating a crisp red apple.

Rowan paid close attention to Arline. Her skin seemed to grow redder as Daniel and Frederick’s tale grew longer and mayhap a bit exaggerated.

“Nary a peep nor complaint from her lips. She’d been keeping up with us as we tore along the valleys and glens to get to Stirling. She has a verra good seat, Lady Arline does.”

The women giggled and the men guffawed at his choice of terms. Rowan had his own thoughts as they pertained to Lady Arline’s seat, but good manners forbade him from sharing those opinions with the rest of the crowd.

Daniel shook his head at them. “Ye ken what I mean! She’s as good a rider as any one here, I tell ye.”

Frederick agreed wholeheartedly. “Aye, he’s tellin’ ye the God’s honest truth, lads. And brave she was that night, too, when the flamin’ arrows were flyin’ through the air.”

Apparently the flaming arrows were their favorite part of the story, for they had repeated it more than once.

“And then, when we finally made it to Stirling Castle? Och! I’ve never seen a braver lassie in me life. Only eight and ten she was at the time,” Frederick said.

Daniel added his own opinion. “Aye! Just eight and ten and verra brave. She’d carried that box across Scotland, never lettin’ it out a her sight, guardin’ it with her life.”

“And then when we got to Stirling Castle? That’s when things got verra scary.” Frederick said.

The crowd fell silent as they listened to Frederick explain how the box had been stolen and it seemed all was lost. “Fer a very long time, we thought Angus and Duncan were goin’ to hang, ye ken. The only thing that could keep them from hangin’ was what was inside that box.” He paused then, shaking his head and looking quite forlorn.

One of the men piped up. “Well, what happened? What was in the box?”

Frederick and Daniel smiled at Lady Arline. “Well, ye see,” Frederick said, lowering his voice ever so slightly. “In that box were papers, papers that showed who had really betrayed King David, the crown and Scotland.”

“Aye, and when it was stolen right from under her nose?” David looked at Arline then. “Did she fall into a heap and cry? Did she rant and rave and curse the world? Nay. She did not.”

They were all looking at Lady Arline, as was Rowan. She looked exceedingly ill at ease, as though she wanted to crawl away. But she remained mute, pretending to ignore the stares and whispers.

“Nay, she did not. She went and found the box! And she was able to save Angus and Duncan from hangin’ and expose the true traitors.”

Arline could take no more. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Nay, that is no’ what happened and ye ken it!”

Frederick and Daniel looked surprised. “’Tis no’? Well,” Frederick said quietly, “’tis how I remember it.”

“And I as well,” Daniel offered, looking a bit smug.

“I was scared out of me wits the night the arrows flew!” Arline said. “’Tis why ye didna hear a peep out of me. I was too scared to say anything fer I was holdin’ on fer me life! And the way ye all took off, racing across the land? Every time ye jumped a log or a stream, I nearly lost me supper!”

The crowd laughed, not at her but with her.

“And as fer me findin’ the box, that’s not exactly true. Robert Stewart pulled all the maids in to his private rooms to question them.”

A woman from the crowd gasped in awe. “Ye met Robert Stewart, the steward of Scotland?” she asked, looking amazed and intrigued.

Arline swallowed hard. She would not be able to tell them everything that had transpired, but there were some things that she supposed were not private or privileged information.

“Aye, I did. He was a verra nice man, verra well mannered.”

“Was he as handsome as they say?” Another woman asked. Her husband glanced at her, disapprovingly. His expression along with his wife’s question made Arline giggle.

“Handsome?” she pretended to think on it fer a time. “Nay, I didna think him handsome. But he was a verra nice man.”

Frederick and Daniel chimed in, evidently not liking the bland manner in which Arline told the story.

“Handsome or nay,” Frederick said, “the truth of it is that the box and the letters were found. And Lady Arline stood in a room filled with hundreds of people and told the truth. She named the true traitors and Angus and Duncan were spared.”

“It wasn’t hundreds, Frederick. More like a few dozen.”

“It was a lot of people, me lady. Ye may no’ have notice fer ye were busy keepin’ the nooses from goin’ around Angus and Duncan’s necks.”

Arline gave him a warm smile, much like a mother would to a child when she knew that child was exaggerating. “Be that as it may,”

Frederick leapt to his feet, “Be that as it may, ye saved two innocent men from hangin’ that day.”

Arline looked up at him, shielded the sun from her eyes with a hand. “We all saved two innocent men from hangin’ that day. I didna do it alone. Were it no’ fer ye and Frederick, and yer brother and all the other men who made sure I got to Stirling alive, well, the outcome would have been quite different.”

“What happened to the traitors?” another of the men asked. “Who were they?”

This was the part of the story that Arline did not like to think or speak about. Her smile faded away and she looked sad. “They hanged them the next day.”

“Who were they?” the man repeated his question.

Arline took a deep breath and looked away from the people. “The son and grandson of me husband.”

Several gasps cut through the silence. Rowan studied the crowd then. The women looked genuinely concerned for Arline, as if they understood the pain she must have gone through. The men looked at her with admiration. Even Thomas’ expression showed he was rather impressed with her.

Lady Arline had shown her fealty and loyalty to Scotland by telling the truth, even when it cost the lives of her husband’s son and grandson.

“Did ye ken they were the traitors? Yer stepson and grandson I mean?” One of the men asked in a low tone.

“Aye, I did,” Arline answered.

“What did their da think of ye then?”

“’Twas their da who confided the truth in me. ’Twas he who asked me to go to Stirling and seek out Robert Stewart and tell him the truth.” Arline turned to face the onlookers. “I had no choice in the matter. I could no’ let two innocent men hang for the crimes of others, even if the traitors were me family. ’Twas the right thing to do.”

The breeze picked up for a moment, caressing the skin of all those in attendance. As the zypher brushed over the tall brown grass, it made a soft, gentle, swooshing sound. For a moment, Rowan could have sworn it was the sound of a hundred people saying aye.

Seventeen

When Garrick Blackthorn had learned that three of his men were dead and his former wife was not, he had turned violent with rage. With his dagger, he had sliced away three fingers from the hand of the man who had delivered the news. Tables and chairs in the gathering room had been upturned and destroyed. By his order, everything in Arline’s room had been taken outside and burned, from her belongings she left behind to the bed she had slept in. Nothing had been spared.

He took his displeasure out on anyone who was stupid enough to get near him, from kitchen maid to trusted advisor, no one was safe from his fury.

Save for his Ona.

Ona. Ona was the only source of light in his otherwise dark and disturbed world. There was nothing he would or could deny her. She had a good heart, his Ona. He knew it was her fault that his former wife still lived, for it had been Ona who had convinced him to spare her life. Ona believed that it was not Arline’s fault that she and Garrick been kept from marrying for more than a year. Nay, that was his father’s fault.

Ona never begged, never pleaded, never gave ultimatums, never batted her eyelashes or used seduction to get what she wanted from Garrick. She only needed to ask.

Ona was his only addiction. He craved her, needed her as much as he needed air. She was the only reason Arline still lived.

Had he killed the foolish woman first, before telling Ona his plan, then Arline would now be rotting in the ground where she belonged. Instead, she was now under the protection of Rowan Graham, the man he had once considered his only true friend. But that was decades ago, when they were children. Too much had happened since those carefree days.

Garrick had learned two weeks after Lily Graham disappeared along with his former wife, exactly what had happened that fateful night. Rowan and three of his men had been able to breech Garrick’s defenses, enter his home and take the brat. Garrick’s men who were on duty that night were summarily tortured before being disemboweled for allowing the breech.

With every fiber of his being, Garrick despised Rowan Graham. Hated him. Wished nothing but ill will toward the fool.

He wanted Rowan to suffer, to die a slow, horrible, agonizing death, just as Garrick’s mother had died trying to bring Andrew Graham’s bastard son into the world.

Garrick had made a promise to his dead mother those many years ago. Her death had nearly been the end of him. He had adored her and she him. She doted on him, denied him nothing. He had been the perfect son. She had told him so every day of his life.

In Garrick’s eyes, she was the perfect mother. Even after he learned the whole sordid truth. He could not blame his mother for her indiscretion. That fault lay at the feet of others.

Doreen Blackthorn had loved Garrick’s father. She had all but worshipped the ground under Phillip Blackthorn’s feet. Naively, she had believed he returned those cherished feelings. That was until the day she found him in bed with a whore, a girl really, barely old enough to know what she was doing. Seeing them together, in their marital bed, had crushed Doreen’s spirit, had broken her heart, and had nearly killed her.

Doreen quit smiling and singing that day. Worst of all, she had quit living.

He’d been a boy then, just two and ten when he learned the truth, that Andrew Graham had seduced his sweet, beautiful mother. His father had told him the whole, sordid, painful truth, sparing few details.

His father took none of the blame of course. It was a man’s right to have a mistress he explained. His God given right to do as he pleased, when he pleased, and with whom he pleased.

But Garrick knew that had his mother not found Phillip in bed with another woman, she would never have sought comfort in the arms of another man, his seed would not have grown in her womb only to kill her in the end.

So Garrick promised to avenge her death. Even as a boy he knew it might take some time before he could put any kind of plan in action. The hope of exacting his revenge was the only thing that kept him going.

Until he met his sweet Ona. ’Twas then that he found another purpose for living. With her long, raven tresses, her soft, blue eyes, and all those glorious curves, he had fallen for her the moment he first laid eyes upon her. In so many ways, Ona reminded him of his sweet, beautiful mother. Soft spoken, beguiling and kind. She even sang like his mother.

But since Ona was Scots and Garrick English, his father refused to allow them to marry. Aye, they lived on Scottish soil, in a grand Scottish castle not far from the English border, but Phillip Blackthorn refused to allow Blackthorn blood to be tainted with even a drop of Scots blood.

With his father dead, Garrick could apply his father’s own words to his life. He would do as he pleased, when he pleased and with whom he pleased. And Ona pleased him very much.

Even after all these years, Garrick felt honor bound to never forget what Andrew Graham had done to his mother. He would seek revenge in her name, to right the injustice the bastard had served on his mother and, ultimately, upon Garrick. Unfortunately, the Black Death took Andrew Graham’s life before Garrick had the chance.

Garrick felt cheated out of the opportunity to watch the life drain from Andrew Graham’s body. He looked at that as another injustice, a slap in the face and it angered him.

The idea to make all of Clan Graham suffer came to him in a dream one night months ago. He would seek retribution by making all of Andrew Graham’s clan suffer. He would begin by tormenting Rowan, making him to suffer knowing his wee daughter was killed by Garrick’s own hand.

Somehow Ona had gotten wind of his plan and put an immediate stop to it. She’d not allow him to take the life of a little girl, especially now that their own child grew in her womb. Wanting nothing more than to make Ona happy, he relented and agreed not to kill the child. But she hadn’t said a word about taking her and holding her for ransom.

Rowan Graham did not know that he owed his daughter’s life to Ona. Arline was just as ignorant.

So Lily Graham’s life as well as Arline’s had been spared because Ona had asked it of him. Garrick would make damn certain that Ona did not learn what he had planned for Rowan, for he knew, deep in his heart, that should she ask him to spare Rowan’s life, it would be the one time he could not grant her wish.

He had made his decision, quietly and without consulting Ona. Garrick would make certain the son suffered for the sins of the father.

Eighteen

Winter did not come gradually nor softly in the night. Nay, it came roaring in just before dawn, with gale force winds that battered against the stone walls with a fury that sounded like a thousand Trojan warriors with battering rams were trying to gain entry. The winds were so loud and strong, that the many inhabitants of Áit na Síochána woke wondering if the walls could withstand it.

For three long days, the wind beat against the walls and roof of the keep. The snow whirled in through the fur-covered windows, leaving the floors beneath them covered in the heavy, cold substance. The children, of course, loved the excitement. The adults left cleaning up the mess and looking for better ways to keep the snow out did not hold the same level of excitement as the children.

Some of the older clansmen could remember a blizzard of similar force and destruction from their childhood. These older people did worry that the affects of this storm would be similar to the storm they had survived in ’23. At least a dozen people had died from exposure and lack of food back then.

Rowan did his best to assure them that no one would lose their lives this time, as long as they stayed within the keep and near the fires.

Their larders were full with dried fruits, cheeses and meat. He reckoned they could survive for three months without having to go in search of meat. Had this blizzard happened last year, or worse yet, the year before? They would not have made it past the first week.

Arline and Selina helped keep the children occupied with games and stories and activities that could be done in the gathering room. He was glad to see that a good number of his people had begun to change their opinions of Arline. Over the past weeks, they had come to see that she was a fine woman, intelligent, kind, and above all else, giving and honorable.

There remained just a handful of people, however, who still believed Mrs. McGregor’s lies. They still held on to the opinion that Arline was a spy sent to ferret out whatever information she could to benefit Garrick Blackthorn. They kept their children away from Arline. Though she would not openly admit to it, Rowan knew their actions hurt her deeply. She also pretended not to hear the vulgar whispers that were said behind her back.

While Rowan could order them to treat her with nothing but respect, he knew he could not change their hearts. Only Arline could do that.

Rowan could only hope that eventually they, too, would come to the same conclusion as the rest of the clan -- that Lady Arline was in fact a beautiful and good woman.

Christmas time was not far away and Lady Arline’s birthday was even closer. He had learned through his most favorite spy -- his daughter Lily -- that Lady Arline’s birthday was just three days before the winter solstice.

Though he had tried on numerous occasions to get Arline to discuss more of herself with him, she usually ended up changing the subject. Why she was more comfortable giving Lily more personal information than she did him, he did not know.

Rowan did feel a connection with Lady Arline, a connection he had never felt with anyone before, not even his beloved Kate. They had come together over Lily and as time went on their friendship grew.

He felt he could talk to Arline about nearly any topic, save for what he was feeling in his heart as it pertained to her. Those feelings and thoughts he kept closely guarded, safely hidden away in the deepest recesses of his heart.

It was more than just a simple friendship, at least that is how he felt about it. He had no idea what Arline thought for she was not one to share her feelings, unless they pertained to Lily, the keep, and general every day life.

Rowan wanted to do something special for Arline for all that she had done for him and for Lily. He had begun planning a very special gift for her the day after they had returned from Blackthorn lands. He hadn’t planned for it to be a birthday gift but things were working out in such a manner that it would arrive in time for her birthday.

Knowing his daughter’s inability to keep a secret, he hadn’t shared the surprise with anyone but Frederick, Daniel and Thomas. They had all agreed that it was in fact the most appropriate gift and one that would show Arline the depths of his gratitude.

As time had passed, Rowan grew more and more fond of his daughter’s governess. Fond to the point of distraction. So fond in fact, that her image began to invade his dreams, making sleep nearly impossible.

Before the blizzard had hit, he was able to work off his physical desires by training with his men. In practice he would not have time to think of Arline and it also gave him the opportunity to work out his frustrations. If he could get to the point of exhaustion then mayhap he could sleep at night. It wasn’t working.

Matters were made worse by the blizzard. Unable to leave the keep, unable to work off the pent up frustrations was beginning to wreak havoc on his otherwise happy disposition.

He was beginning to feel less and less guilty over having these strong feelings and desires toward Arline. It wasn’t just Arline who visited him in his dreams. Kate was often there, chastising him for being a foolish man and telling him to move on with his life.

Last night’s dream had been the most vivid and terrifying of his life. In it, Kate was holding Arline’s hand. They were standing in a field of spring grass and bluebells. They were both smiling at him, adoringly. Kate was telling him he had to move on, to love again, and that she believed he had made a fine choice in Arline.

I couldna have picked a better woman to be a mum to our daughter than Arline. Rowan, ye must not keep yer heart to me and me alone. Ye be too lonely. I ken it and it breaks me heart. Ye promised me, Rowan Graham, on me deathbed that ye would give yer heart to another some day. Please, Rowan, give it to Arline.

And then they were both gone. Blackness had filled the space where the two beautiful women had floated in the air. The happiness and joy he had felt with seeing Kate and hearing her speak Arline’s praises were replaced with something ugly, dark, ominous. They were both gone, and he had the sense that Lily was with them. The three women that he loved and adored most in his life, were gone.

His hands were filled with dust, little particles of memories, hopes, dreams. He was left with the impression that these three beautiful lasses had been taken somewhere far away where they would never be found. In his dream, he knew they were being tortured and there was nothing he could do to save them.

Then Kate was back, telling him it was not too late, he could change the tide, he could save Lily and Arline, if only he would open his heart. The only way ye can save them both is to love Arline with all of yer heart.

 He woke then, long before dawn, shooting upright in his empty bed. He was covered in sweat, his heart feeling as though it were about to explode and gulping for air.

He tossed back the covers and sat on the edge of his bed, willing his mind and heart to settle. He took in deep, slow breaths and tried to shake the images from his mind and the sense of impending doom from his heart.

He failed at both.

Something niggled at the back of his mind and made the hair on his neck stand up. He had to check on Lily. Quickly, he grabbed his tunic from the back of the chair by his fireplace. He tugged it on over his head, punching his arms through the sleeves. He grabbed his plaid and wrapped it around his shoulder and waist before snatching his dagger from the table by his bed.

Lily’s room was connected to his. With his dagger in hand, he silently opened the door and stepped inside. He noticed first that there was no lit candle. The last he had known, she could not sleep without one for she was terrified that the bad men would come for her again.

The embers from the fireplace however, cast enough light into the dark room that he could make out her bed. He took a few quiet steps forward.

His pounding heart stilled at the sight before him.

Lily was, as always, curled into a ball, thumb in her mouth and hair twisted around her finger. But it was not her own hair twined around her finger. Nay. The long auburn locks belonged to Arline.

They were lying under the furs, with Lily nestled into Arline’s chest. Arline had one hand resting on Lily’s stomach and they looked so content and at peace that it stole his breath away.

No wonder Lily did not come to him with her nightmares anymore. Arline was there to chase the demons away.

He felt the dread and despair leave him, taking with them the guilt and fear he had been dueling with for weeks. He was tempted to climb into the bed with them and wrap them both in his arms. He wanted to promise them that he would never allow either of them to be hurt or taken away. In his arms, in his heart, they could always find comfort and protection.

He stood for a time listening to the soft crackle of the embers in the fireplace and watching these two beautiful women sleeping. Occasionally, Lily would sigh and suck on her thumb for a few moments. Arline barely moved save for an occasional soft, contented sigh.

A sense of peace fell over him, like a warm length of plaid or an old familiar blanket. He found that he liked the way he felt, but he wanted more. He wanted to know that this beautiful, smart, witty and strong auburn-haired woman would be with him for the rest of his life.

Soon, very soon, he would tell her how he felt. He could only pray that she had the same feelings toward him.

He left them then, as quietly as he had entered. He went back to his room, but not back to his bed.

For the first time in many years, he knelt beside his bed and prayed. He prayed for guidance, strength and courage. He prayed for the ability to protect his people, his daughter and Arline.

But his most fervent prayer would be that Arline would say yes when he asked her to become his wife.

Arline suffered with delightfully disturbing dreams of her own. The dreams left her feeling like two separate people stuck inside one body. There was the good, decent, righteous Arline who hated how the dreams left her feeling. The good Arline wanted nothing more than to live a clean, wholesome life. A life that would have made Minnie quite proud.

Then there was the less than wholesome, less than godly Arline. The one who thoroughly enjoyed the dreams, relished them. The Arline with the fluttering, swooning, happy insides. The Arline who wanted nothing more than to sneak into Rowan’s room in the middle of the night and strip him bare just to see if her dreams had been accurate. In them, he was as perfect. There was also the strong desire to see if all the things she had dreamt were in fact physically possible. She desperately wanted to know if she would feel the same delightful, wicked, excited sensations while awake as she did when she was asleep.

It was becoming more and more difficult to look at him. She was certain he must think her an absent-minded fool, she was certain of it. There were many times when he had to repeat questions for she simply wasn’t paying any attention to what was coming out of his mouth, though she was fully aware of his mouth. It could not escape notice for those lips were full and his teeth perfectly straight and white. Had God designed that mouth to test a woman’s virtue? Or had the devil, for the same purpose? Either way, it seemed wholly unfair to have such a temptation staring her in the face.

Nineteen

The blizzard finally laid and dawn broke over the horizon, casting the lands in vibrant shades of pinks, oranges, and purples. As the sun rose over the horizon, it turned the snow a brilliant shade of gold.

Rowan felt it was a most magnificent morning, a perfect day to ask a beautiful young woman to be his wife.

He pulled Frederick, Daniel and Thomas into his library just after they broke their fast. There were several items they needed to discuss, the best one he would save for last.

Thomas reported that Mrs. McGregor was getting along nicely in her new quarters. She had been removed from the dungeon -- per Arline’s incessant requests -- more than a week ago. They had her locked away in a small room on the third floor. Still, she refused to apologize or tell anyone anything.

“I dunna think I ever met a more stubborn woman in all me days,” Thomas said, clearly exasperated by the situation. “Not even yer mum was that stubborn!”

Rowan laughed heartily at Thomas’ comparison of Mrs. McGregor to his mother, Enndolynn Graham. “Mayhap my mum was no’ as stubborn, but clearly she would have been much smarter about things. Mum had a way of letting everyone ken just how angry she be without utterin’ a word.”

They spoke for a time, reminiscing about days past before finally getting on with matters at hand.

“Daniel,” Rowan said as he gave the man a pat on the back. “I want ye to send a group of men to relieve our lads on the perimeters.” Rowan said as he made his way to his seat. They had men located around the outer regions of Graham lands, though not nearly as many as he would have liked. He knew his men were smart enough to take refuge in the tiny huts placed along their borders. Hopefully they had been able to do so before the snow had become too difficult to traverse.

“And take a few men out to check on the crofters. Make sure they be well-stocked. If their supplies are low, ye can offer them to stay in the keep. We may get more blizzards and I do no’ want to lose anyone.”

Daniel happily agreed. “’Twill be good to get out of the keep fer the day. I was goin’ daft with nothin’ to do.”

“Aye, and ’tis been four days since ye’ve seen that bonny little MacKenzie girl!” Frederick teased him.

Daniel’s face burned with embarrassment. “Yer daft,” he grumbled.

Frederick pretended to be confused. “Are ye sure? I mean, if ye are no’ interested in Anna MacKenzie, I wouldn’t mind askin’ her to take a walk in the moonlight.”

Daniel’s eyes flew open. “Ye stay away from Anna MacKenzie! She’s too good a lass fer the likes of ye.”

Frederick laughed and slapped Daniel on the back. “’Tis just as I thought. Ye’ve takin’ a likin’ to the lass. I can’t say that I blame ye, fer she is a bonny thing. But, I wonder,” he let his words trail off.

Daniel raised an eyebrow. “Wonder? Wonder over what?”

“If her da will let her marry a man like ye!” he answered playfully.

Daniel rolled his eyes and sighed with indifference. “Who says I want to marry the girl?”

Frederick gave a wink to Rowan before he answered the question. “Ye do. Ye talk in yer sleep, ye eejit!”

Daniel had had enough of Frederick’s needling. In one swift motion, he had Frederick in a headlock, threatening to part him from his manhood if he did not cease his teasing.

Frederick was laughing so hard at Daniel’s distress that he could not answer at first. “Aye, aye, aye,” he said between fits of laughter.

Thomas smacked them both on the tops of their heads. “Settle down, ye heathens. There’s work to be done.”

Daniel and Frederick finally regained their composure and settled down to listen to their chief. Rowan took his seat behind his desk and tried to settle the wave of excitement that had plagued him since the early morning hours.

“I wanted to let the three of ye know that I have made a decision.” He paused for a moment, looking to make certain he had their full attention. “I’m going to ask Lady Arline to marry me.”

Three stunned men looked back at him. Thomas tried to started to speak, stopped and tried again. “Ye canna be serious?” there was no denying the fact that he was astonished.

“I am. I plan on askin’ her after the evenin’ meal this night. I’ve made up me mind.”

“Then unmake it!” Thomas said. “Ye canna marry a woman known to be barren, Rowan. The clan council will no’ allow it.”

Rowan tilted his head sideways and raised an eyebrow. “I wasna aware I had to ask the council permission to marry, Thomas.”

“Ye dunna have to ask permission, but ye need their approval!”

“Och! Now yer tryin’ to separate the fly shite from the pepper!” He had hoped, after all these weeks, that Thomas would have changed his mind about Arline. “Mayhap it be yer opinion of Lady Arline that skews yer opinion of me marryin’ her.”

Thomas ran a hand through his unruly brown hair. “I do no’ hold the same opinion of her that I did when she first arrived, Rowan. She is a fine woman and aye, she’d make almost any man a fine wife. But she’s no’ fer ye! Ye need sons, sons who can become chief of this clan some day. Lady Arline canna give ye that.”

It mattered not to Rowan if Arline was barren or as fertile as a rabbit. He loved her, plain and simple. With or without the council’s permission, he would marry her. While he did not relish the argument or fighting his decision might cause, it was a fight he would not back away from.

“I’ll no’ change me mind, Thomas,” Rowan said as he clenched his jaw. “She’s good fer Lily and fer me.”

“Aye, she’s a good governess, I’ll grant ye that. And there is nothin’ that says she canna remain her governess. If it’s a wife ye be wantin’, there be women here who’d give their right arm to be yer wife.”

Rowan let out a long, heavy sigh of frustration. “But I do no’ want those women to be me wife, Thomas. I’ll no’ marry a woman I do no’ love.”

“Did ye love Kate when ye married her?” Thomas growled.

Rowan shot to his feet. “That was different! That was an arranged marriage. I may no’ have loved Kate the day we took our vows, but I grew to love her shortly after.”

Thomas shook his head in befuddlement. “What if the council does no’ give their blessin’? What will ye do then? Give up yer chiefdom? Give up yer clan, yer family’s legacy? Give up all the hard work of yer father, and his father, and his? Does none of that mean anythin’ to ye?”

It meant a great deal more to him than Thomas realized. Rowan was dedicated to his people, to the clan. But must he sacrifice his own happiness in order to remain chief and continue the Graham legacy?

“Please, Rowan, just think on it fer a spell. Think what marryin’ Arline would mean, in the end, after all ’tis said and done.”

“Does the clan council ken that there is a possibility that Arline is barren?”

Thomas shook his head as if he understood where Rowan was heading. “I do no’ ken and I do no’ care. If ye decide to go through with this, ye will have to bring it before us. I’ll no’ lie fer ye, Rowan, no matter how much I love ye like a son.”

Rowan knew that he could not, in good conscience ask Thomas to lie or withhold information. Thomas was more than just his friend and advisor, he was also a member of the counsel. He would do what he felt was for the good of the clan and its future.

Last night’s dream, where he lost Arline for eternity, came crashing to the forefront of his mind. Had the dream been an omen foretelling the future or was it simply telling him what he already knew -- that he could not have Arline as his wife?

His palms began to feel clammy and his stomach uneasy. He could not imagine going through the rest of his life without Arline as his wife. But neither could he imagine living it as anything other than chief of Clan Graham.

He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

After much back and forth between himself and Thomas, Rowan finally agreed to think on the matter further. The last thing he wanted was to think. He wanted to feel. Feel something other than alone and lonely. He wanted a bit of happiness in his life, a bit of contentment and harmony. Was that too much to ask for?

He wanted to feel Arline’s hair as he ran his fingers through it. He wanted to know what it would feel like to have her skin pressed against his, her lips on his lips. He wanted to feel her lying next to him as he drifted off to sleep each night and again, when he woke in the morning.

It wasn’t just an intense physical attraction he felt toward Arline. Nay, it went much deeper than that. He loved her as a person, as a woman. She was kind and generous, funny and smart. She was strong and honorable. She was all the things he needed and wanted in a woman, and much more.

He did not know how he would go on with the rest of his life if the clan counsel did not give their blessing and allow the two of them to marry. Aye, he could marry Arline without their permission, but that could lead to so many troubles. The clan counsel could call for a vote to have him stripped of his chiefdom.

Everyone in the clan would be allowed to vote on whether or not he could remain as their chief. Although many of his people had come to accept Lady Arline as part of the clan, he could not guarantee they would accept her as his wife.

What then? What would he do if he were stripped of his position? His pride would not allow him to stay here while someone else led his clan. He couldn’t bear it.

Although being chief of Clan Graham was his birthright, there were still certain protocols that had to be maintained and met. Even though he had inherited his position, his people could take it all away if they deemed him unfit to lead.

And what of Lily? Although she could not be the actual chief of the clan, any potential husband could take on that role. It would strip her of her future by default if the clan voted against him.

He could not remember ever having to make a decision as difficult as the one that now lay before him.

Just this morning he had felt as though he were floating on air. Happier than he had been in more than four years. Now, he had the sensation that he was adrift at sea, holding on to nothing more substantial than a piece of driftwood. Damn.

Twenty

Rowan stayed to his library in self-imposed seclusion for the remainder of the morning. He had not realized how much time had passed until his stomach began to grumble. With his mind still considering his choices and his heart in utter turmoil, he left his den of isolation to search for food.

Mrs. Fitz, a comely brown-haired woman of mayhap forty years, was doing a remarkable job in her new position as head cook. She had been working under Mrs. McGregor for the past two years, knew the kitchens and the clans people as well as anyone, so it had been an easy decision for him to make. Besides, Lady Arline had recommended her for the position.

Lady Arline. Every thought looped back around to her. As he walked the length of hallway toward the kitchens, he shook his head and muttered a curse under his breath. The beautiful redhead was always at the forefront of his thoughts. He could not banish the images of her from his mind. Nor could he stop the thrumming of his heart those thoughts brought.

And he could not escape the fact that she was having a positive affect on most of his clan. Lily adored her, Daniel and Frederick nearly worshipped at her feet, and even Thomas had grown to admire the woman.

There remained only a handful of people who held to the belief that she was a spy, sent by Garrick Blackburn for mysterious and nefarious reasons. Och! How he wished he could change their minds and their hearts toward her. If he was ever to be allowed to marry Arline, he would need the approval and blessing of each member of his clan.

Just as the course of a stream could be altered by one tiny pebble, so too could a man’s mind, heart, even his destiny, be affected by one small, simple opinion.

He was paying very little attention to where he was going as he rounded the corner in a huff and walking far to quickly to stop what next happened.

Lily was suddenly in front of him, carrying a tray and Lady Arline was right behind her. He was able to avoid knocking Lily down by spreading his legs far apart to allow his very surprised little girl to sweep through them. However, he could not, no matter how he tried, stop his forward momentum. The only thing he could do to keep from landing on top of Lady Arline as they fell was to wrap his arms around her, spin, and allow his back to take the brunt of the fall.

He hadn’t realized that Lady Arline was carrying a tray until he felt it slam against his chest during their less-than-elegant fall to the floor. He also had not realized the strength of his own skull until it bounced off the stone floor.

It had all happened so quickly, the blink of an eye really, that both he and Lady Arline were left stunned, with eyes wide and mouths agape. The pitcher of ale and the earthenware mug were smashed into his chest. He could very well have been bleeding and not known for his shirt was soaked, his brains rattled from the blow to his head and his heart left pounding in his throat.

He closed his eyes tightly and shook away the pain in his head as he tried to catch the breath that had been knocked from his lungs. He pulled Arline closer, using her as a brace against the pain in his thick, Scottish noggin.

When he finally opened his eyes, she was looking back at him. At first, he thought she was frozen with fear. But then, he noticed she was not looking at his eyes, but was staring at his lips.

He was close enough to press his lips against hers and he was sorely tempted. Even with a pounding skull, ale leaking all over him and bits of crockery digging into his chest. Aye, this is where he wanted her. In his arms, on top of him, under him, it mattered not. Remove the spilt ale, the jagged shards digging into his flesh, his throbbing head and their clothes, and he reckoned it would be a most perfect union.

“Rowan,” Arline finally spoke, sounding breathless and damned appealing. His groin began to ache and at the same time, sing with delight. He imagined he could have seven arrows piercing his body at the moment and his maleness would still respond to this beautiful green-eyed auburn-haired woman. He also reckoned that she wouldn’t even need to be sprawled across him. Just the thought of her would bring him to full attention. His male member was going to be the death of him someday, he just knew it.

“Da!” Lily squealed from very near his feet. He heard her set her tray down on the cold stones. He also heard her little feet rushing to his side. “Lady Arline!” Lily exclaimed as she stood next to them.

The sound of his daughter’s voice had two affects on him. It immediately cleared the wicked images of a naked Lady Arline from his mind and acted like a bucket of frozen water thrown on his lower extremities. Thank God fer Lily or I’d be carrying Lady Arline up the stairs to me chamber right now. Blow to the head and cut skin be damned.

Rowan closed his eyes again, hoping to settle his nerves and regain the use of his lungs. “Woman, ye’ll be the death of me,” he whispered without thinking.

Arline scurried away and he did not like the emptiness she left behind. “I be terribly sorry, Rowan,” she murmured softly.

He sensed by the tone of her voice that he had hurt her feelings. Of course she could not know by his statement that he was not angry or upset with her.

He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. She was sitting but a few steps away from him, holding on to Lily as if she were a rope meant to keep her from drowning.

He could not help but notice that the bodice of her green dress was also soaked with ale. He could just make out the shapes of delightful, perky breasts. At least in the recesses of his wicked mind they were delightful.

“Are ye well, da?” Lily asked. Her eyes and voice were filled with worry and concern.

Rowan took a deep breath and nodded his head an act which immediately filled him with regret. “Aye, I will be well.”

He took a moment before rolling over to his side. Arline remained frozen, her eyes were as wide as trenchers and moist, as if she were fighting back tears.

“I be verra sorry, lassies. I was no’ watchin’ where I was going. ’Tis all me own fault, no’ yers. Please, fergive me.” His words were meant for both Arline and Lily, though his eyes were glued to Arline’s.

“We were bringin’ ye a meat pie, da,” Lily said as she knelt down to look at him. “I helped Mrs. Fitz to make them.”

His daughter still looked quite worried over him. Forcing a smile he took a moment before pushing himself to sit. He took Lily in his arms and gave her a grand hug.

Ye almost kissed him! Arline thought before chastising the wanton, harlot of a woman that had invaded her dreams and was rapidly taking over her waking hours. Ye be a fool, an eejit of a woman, she told herself as she stared at the object of her torment.

Her nerves were frayed, her emotions all jumbled and making her stomach feel once again as if it housed a school of large salmon. She cursed herself for thinking of kissing him and for regretting not following that urge.

Taking a deep breath, she gave a mental shake of her head and tried to push the thoughts from her mind. The man was most assuredly injured, and the only thing ye can think of was to kiss him!

After he had declared she would be the death of him, she felt relieved that she hadn’t. Certain she was that he would toss her out into the cold winter if she had taken that bold step and done what she wanted most to do. She vexed him, she had no doubt for he had just told her so.

She didn’t want to vex him, she wanted to kiss him. Repeatedly. Both her heart and her lips desperately wanted to know what it would feel like. How often had she wondered and day dreamt on that very subject? Too many times to count.

She had often wondered if he would respond positively to such a bold move. Would he take her in his arms and kiss her thoroughly and soundly with those horribly magnificent lips of his? Would he smile fondly and welcome her lips against his?

Nay. She knew that now for he had just told her. She would be the death of him.

Her eyes filled with tears that she would not shed in front of him. She’d die first before she would shed another tear in his presence. It was, of course, to be expected. She was cursed with some affliction she could not identify that kept men -- whether it be her father, her husbands, or any other man -- from loving her.

She was doomed to spend the rest of her life alone. No matter how she tried to convince herself that that was exactly what she wanted, to live a life of solitude, her blasted heart refused to give up. Her heart wanted to be loved, to be adored and respected.

Her heart wanted all those things it could not have. It betrayed her, left her feeling abandoned, unlovable, unwanted.

Rowan’s deep voice, soft and filled with something she could not recognize broke her quite reverie.

“Are ye well, lass?” he asked as he pulled himself to his feet.

Was it genuine concern she saw in his eyes? Mayhap, but it wasn’t necessarily for her as a person. He was most likely worried over his daughter’s governess, not her as a woman.

She swallowed back the tears and mumbled that she was well. She noticed then his torn and soaked tunic that was plastered against his broad, muscular chest. Taking a deep breath, she swore she would not swoon nor would she cry over that which she could never have. Instead, she did the grown up, mature and intelligent thing. She could not blame him, for the curse was hers.

“Yer bleedin’!” she cried out in surprise. It wasn’t just the ale that soaked his tunic, it was blood.

She shot to her feet and reached out to tend to his injuries. She could not panic in front of Lily so she willed her hands and voice to remain calm. “Lily,” she said calmly, “help me get yer da to his room.”

She placed her hands on his tunic and began to examine the tears. She opened one of them and peered inside. Rowan gently grabbed her hands with his, and pressed them against his chest.

“I will be well, Arline. ’Tis just a few scratches.”

He could feel her hands tremble inside his and he found himself unable to let them go. He felt something then, something warm and loving though it was hidden under a current of fear. She cared for him, he could feel it in her touch and see it in her eyes.

“Och! Ye stubborn Scot! Just let me see to the wounds. Ye do no’ want them to get infected!” she tried to free her hands from his grasp. He held on tighter.

That would solve all me problems, he thought. I could let the wounds fester and die from it. Would be far more desirable to die from that than from me aching heart.

She was looking into his eyes, her forehead creasing and he could tell that she was about to argue with him.

“I’ll have Thomas tend to them. He’s our healer on the battlefields. I promise ye needn’t worry over a few scratches.”

The look she gave him said she did not believe him and for some reason, it made him smile. “Lily, run and get Thomas. Have him meet me in me bedchamber.”

He raised a brow as if to say now do ye believe me? “I’ll help ye to clean up this mess,” he told her as he finally let go of her hands.

“Ye will do no such thing!” she said sternly. “Ye go to yer room now. I’ll take care of the mess.”

He had the sense that she wanted to say more, something along the lines that he was a stubborn fool. His smile grew as he reached out and touched the tip of her nose. “Yer a good woman, Lady Arline. A verra good woman.”

And with that, he left her to seek out the solitude his room offered.

Arline followed him with her eyes as he made his way down the corridor. Her breath did not return until he rounded the corner and was out of her sight.

Twenty-One

Unfortunately for Rowan, his wounds were nothing more than a few deep scratches. He could not hope for a raging infection that would end his sorry life thereby negating the need for him to make a decision.

Selina and Lily brought a tray of food to his room after Thomas had declared he was fine and that it would take more than a stone floor and a pitcher of ale to do the man in.

Rowan stayed to his room the rest of the day, pacing back and forth as he mulled over what to do about Lady Arline. He sent word to Arline and the rest of the clan that he would not be joining them for the evening meal under the guise of the knock he took to his skull. ’Twas a full out lie. His head had stopped pounding hours ago. It was his heart that ached.

He wanted her to be his wife. He wanted to remain chief of his clan. How could he have both?

After the evening meal, Selina returned with Lily so that she could bid him good night. He remained in his seat by the fire and tried to at least appear as though he had a headache.

He found it quite odd that Selina had brought her instead of Lady Arline. He found he would not have to inquire as to the location of Lady Arline, for Lily offered her information up with all the innocence of a four-year-old girl.

“Lady Arline has a headache too, da.” Lily told him as she climbed onto his lap.

His heart immediately filled with worry. Had he somehow injured her during their tumble earlier? Had the tray that lodged between them injured her somehow?

He looked up to Selina for some kind of confirmation or expansion.

Selina smiled warmly at him. “She’ll be fine, Rowan. She thinks she’s been cooped up in this keep for far too many days. If the weather is nice on the morrow, we’ll take the children outside to play.”

He found little reassurance in Selina’s words. He tamped down the urge to see Arline with his own eyes. Mayhap the less he saw of her the quicker he’d be able to make up his mind.

Many hours later, he awoke to the sound of Lily crying. His heart lurched at the sight of his babe standing in the open doorway to his room, tears streaming down her little cheeks.

He reached her in but a few fast steps and picked her up. Holding her to his chest, he whispered softly. “Wheesht, babe. Da is here.”

Between sobs, Lily explained her plight. “Lady Arline did not come to sleep with me tonight,” she hiccuped and lifted her head to look at him. “I had a bad dream again,” she said. Her little eyes and nose were red. Her tears left salty trails down her cheeks.

“Wheesht, little one,” he whispered as he bounced her up and down gently.

“Lady Arline has the bad dreams too, da,” Lily said as she thrust her thumb between her lips.

Rowan’s heart skipped beating for a moment and he felt very much an intolerable oaf. Not once had he thought to ask Arline how she was faring. His only concern over the last weeks had been for his daughter.

He had thoughtlessly assumed that since Lily did not come to him in the middle of the night, that she was recovering nicely from her ordeal. She rarely talked with him about what happened at Blackthorn keep. He had assumed that meant that her time there was not as bad as he had originally imagined.

Realizing he had made a terrible error in assessing the harm done to both Lily and Arline, tears stung his eyes. How could he have been so ignorant? So unaware?

“Tell me, sweeting, what was yer bad dream?”

Lily hiccuped as she removed her thumb from her mouth. “The bad men came and took Lady Arline and me. They took us back to their keep. The mean man spanked me again, with the strap and he spanked Lady Arline too.”

Rowan knew, from what Caelen had told him that first day, that Garrick Blackthorn had taken a strap to Lily, so there was some truth to her dream. She was forced to relieve those awful moments and he felt there was naught he could do except hold her.

“I’ll no let the bad men get ye again, Lily. I promise.” He’d die before he would ever allow Garrick Blackthorn, or anyone else for that matter, bring any harm to his daughter.

“Ye won’t let him take Lady Arline either?” Lily asked as she slipped her thumb back into her little mouth.

“Nay,” Rowan whispered softly. “I’ll no’ let any harm come to Lady Arline. I do so promise.”

Lily sighed and gave a little nod of her head as if to say she believed him. Slipped her free hand up his neck and grabbed a length of his brown hair and began twisting it around her finger.

He returned to the chair by the fireplace and sat in the quiet of the night, his insides roiling with anger and guilt.

“Lily,” he spoke in a low, soft voice. “Do ye think, on the morrow, we could spend some time together? Just the two of us?”

“What about Lady Arline?” she asked sleepily. “She gets lonely and afraid too.”

Rowan tilted his head a bit so that he could get a better look at his daughter. “She does?”

Lily nodded her head. “That is why she sleeps with me everra night. She has bad dreams sometimes too. She is afraid the bad man will come fer her too.”

Knowing Garrick Blackthorn haunted the dreams of his daughter and the woman he had fallen in love with made him furious. It felt like a snake had coiled around his heart and stomach and each time Blackthorn’s name was mentioned, the snake drew tighter.

“Da,” Lily said as she twirled his hair around her finger. “Please don’t make Lady Arline leave. I love her.”

Her request puzzled him. “Why would I make Lady Arline leave?”

“If her da finds out that she be here, he’ll make her go back to Ireland. She doesna ever want to leave us. But she does miss her sisters.”

Rowan took a deep breath and thought long and hard before answering his daughter. “I promise I’ll no’ let anyone take Lady Arline,” he said as he kissed the top of Lily’s head.

I’ll kill any man who tries to take her away from us.

Rowan had waited until Lily had fallen back to sleep before he placed her in his bed and tucked her in under his furs. Knowing he’d not be able to sleep until he saw that Arline was well, he lit a candle and left his room to seek out hers.

Her room was not far from his, just around the corner and down a few doors. Since their return from Blackthorn keep, Rowan had set guards to patrol the floors throughout the night. He met one of them now as he padded down the hallway.

“Domnal,” Rowan spoke quietly. “I take it all is well?”

Domnal gave him a curious look. “Aye, all is well, Rowan,” the young man answered as he cast a look over his shoulder in the direction of Lady Arline’s room.

Rowan chuckled, realizing the young man assumed Rowan was lurking in the halls in the middle of the night, presumably to meet with Lady Arline for a tryst.

“’Tis no’ what ye think, Domnal. Lily had a bad dream and asked that I check on Lady Arline to make certain she is well.”

Domnal smiled and nodded his head as if clarity had dawned. “She usually sleeps in Lily’s room, Rowan. But this night, she kept to her own.”

Was everyone in this castle aware of where Arline slept each night but him? The thought aggravated his already guilty conscience.

“I’ve no’ heard a thing from her room, this night, Rowan,” Domnal offered. “Is Lily well?”

Rowan ran a hand across his face. “Aye, fer now she is. But I promised I would check on Lady Arline fer her. She’ll no’ sleep until she kens she is well.”

He knew it was a bald-faced lie, but Domnal didn’t need to know the particulars. “And if Lily doesna sleep, then I’ll get none either.”

“Go see fer yerself,” Domnal said before leaving his chief to continue his patrol.

Rowan padded softly and stood outside Arline’s door for several moments. He could hear his heart beating rapidly as he took a deep breath and slowly opened the door.

The light of the candle cast a sliver of yellow light into her room. There was Arline, fast asleep in her bed. Wavy auburn locks were tucked behind one ear and fell wildly over one pillow. She held another pillow against her chest and resembled a child holding onto a favorite doll whilst she slept.

He stood in the doorway and watched the gentle rise and fall of her shoulders as she slept. Her face showed no sign of worry or distressful sleep, in fact, she looked quite content. He breathed a sigh of relief and sent a silent prayer upward that she would be able to sleep the remainder of the night in peace.

For a moment, he was tempted to go to her, climb into her bed and whisper the same promise to her as he made to Lily. He’d not let anything bad ever happen to her. Even if he could not marry her, he would always protect her.

Gently he closed the door and went back to his daughter before he made a complete fool of himself.

Twenty-Two

Lily woke Rowan not long after sunrise. He helped her with her morning ablutions before tending to his own. He helped her into a little blue dress, did his best to comb out the tangled locks without making her scream in protest, and felt more like his old self than he had in weeks.

He realized as he slipped on his black trews and a white tunic that he really did not care to resemble his old self ever again. His old self was a lonely man who spoiled his daughter far too much out of love and the never ending guilt he possessed over the fact that her mum had died.

Lily had no fond memories or recollections of her mother. There was nothing for Lily to hold on to, nothing that kept her from moving forward with her life. She had no past to do battle with. There had been times when he wished that he could live in the same state of blissful oblivion, where memories did not haunt him by day or by night.

This morn however, he was not overwhelmed with guilt for moving forward with his life. Instead, guilt plagued him for far different reasons.

At sometime in the dark of the night, as he had lain in his bed listening to the sweet sound of his daughter slumbering peacefully beside him, he had made a decision.

He could not ask for Lady Arline’s hand.

There were a thousand reasons why he wanted to marry Arline. But only one that would keep him from doing that. Lily’s birthright.

Rowan did not have the courage nor did he feel he possessed the right to take Lily’s future away from her so that he might have one with Arline. Truthfully, he didn’t give a damn about his position as chief. He’d gladly relinquish it without regret. But he could not take away from Lily that which was rightfully hers.

Arline would have made such a wonderful mother to Lily. He wanted to give her that. But to give her a mother meant to give up her birthright, her future. Just as he could not remain chief and have Arline as his wife, Lily could not hold onto her birthright and have Arline has her mother.

The whole situation seemed inherently unfair. In a perfect world -- one that currently did not exist, at least not for him -- he could have Arline as his wife and life partner and Lily could have the mother she wanted and needed.

He would do whatever he could to see that Arline remained among his clan. For now, as Lily’s governess and mayhap, later, she could find a man who could marry her without reserve and help her have a wonderful life.

He did not enjoy the thought of Arline making a life with another man. It made his heart ache to think of her with another man. Yet, he knew he could not keep from her that which she deserved. No matter which way he looked at it, someone would have to sacrifice for his happiness. He could not do that.

Rowan took Lily’s hand in his and led her from his room. Lily was hungry and looking forward to breaking her fast. Rowan found he had no appetite.

They had not walked far when Arline called out for them. She met the two of them in the hallway. She was shocked to see Rowan up at such an early hour and with his daughter. After quietly inquiring as to the wellness of the other, together they escorted Lily below stairs.

It felt right to Rowan, this simple act of himself and Arline taking his daughter to gather with his people for the morning meal. They were meant to do this, to be together, as a family. But at what cost?

Lily chattered on about Red John’s pups and begged Rowan to allow her to go to the stables today to check on them. It mattered not to Lily that Red John had reassured her that the pups were fine, she insisted on seeing them for herself.

They made their way to the gathering room and took their seats at the high table. Rowan took note that Arline was unusually quiet and, like him, ate very little.

“I’m ready to play in the snow,” Lily informed them both as she took the last bite of her eggs.

Arline smiled down at the excited child and patted the top of her head. “Why don’t ye go and find yer friends, Lily? I’ll go above stairs and grab our cloaks and scarves.”

Lily scrambled happily from her seat in search of her friends. Arline stood to leave without saying a word to Rowan.

“Lady Arline, I’ll escort ye above stairs,” he offered.

Arline remained mute, gave a slight nod of acquiescence and took his offered arm.

“How is yer head this morn?” he asked as they made their way to the stairs.

She very nearly slipped and asked what head ache when she remembered that had been her excuse to remain hidden in her rooms. “It lingers,” she lied, just in case she might need to use that excuse again.

A look of genuine concern came to Rowan’s face. It made her feel all the more guilty for lying to him. But how could she tell him the truth? That every moment for her was both a delight and an agony? That his image was pervasive, always there, in her dreams, in her waking moments?

Nay, she could not tell him those things knowing full well that she vexed him to the point of frustration. She had seen it in his eyes the previous morn and he had even admitted to the same.

“I am certain the fresh air will help. Ye needn’t worry,” she said as they climbed the winding staircase to the second floor. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye.

“And ye, Rowan? How are yer wounds?”

Rowan shrugged his shoulders. He knew she spoke of the scrapes and scratches on his chest and not his wounded soul. “I’d hardly call them wounds. Just a few scratches.”

Not a word was said between them again as they walked side by side in the quiet hallways. Lost in their own thoughts, there were a thousand things their hearts wanted to say but neither of them possessed the courage to say them.

Rowan lifted the latch on the door to Arline’s room and pushed it open. He held it open as she glided through. To help stave off any temptation to either speak his heart or act on his feelings, he left the door open and waited patiently just inside the doorway.

Arline quietly slipped into the small dressing room. Once inside, she leaned against the wall and took slow steady breaths. It was becoming increasingly difficult to be anywhere near the man without her legs turning to mush, her mouth going dry, her palms sweating or having the urge to throw herself at him!

It was quite apparent that her body would not listen to reason. It ignored the fact that he was irritated with her. It ignored the fact that he had not shown one tiny drop of interest in her other than as his daughter’s governess.

Nay, her body continued to betray her heart and her good sense! What on earth was she to do? One of these days she would slip up and say something stupid, something along the lines of Please, take me! Kiss me! Hold me! She would die from the mortification, embarrassment and humiliation of it.

And if her tongue didn’t get her into trouble, her body would. Only moments ago, as they passed through the doorway, she had an overwhelming urge to push him onto her bed and tear his tunic off with her teeth. The only thing that saved her from doing just that was the image of him laughing at her immature attempts at seduction.

She was tempted to disregard donning woolens, boots, and cloak in favor of rolling around in the frozen snow in hopes of catching her death. Death seemed to be the only solution to the tormented thoughts and feelings she had toward Rowan.

As Arline mulled over the temptation of suicide by freezing to death, Lily came rushing into Arline’s bedchamber. Arline recognized the little girl’s squeals as nothing more than excitement. She let out a frustrated sigh before stepping out of the dressing room.

“Lady Arline! Lady Arline!” Lily exclaimed as she raced into Arline’s arms.

“Wheesht, Lily!” Arline said as she patted the excited child on the back. “Do we scream like that when we are in doors?”

Lily blew loose tendrils of hair out of her eyes. “Only if we be under attack or the keep is on fire,” Lily replied quickly.

Lily had paid no attention to her father until he chuckled at her quick response. “Ye need to leave, Da. I have womanly stuff to talk to Lady Arline about.”

Rowan had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from bursting out with laughter. Instead, he chose the most serious expression he could manage, crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the wall. “Womanly stuff, ye say?” He glanced at Arline and could see that she too was trying not to laugh at his excited little girl. Rowan resisted asking what kind of womanly things a four-year-old would need to discuss with her governess and why it should warrant secrecy.

Lily nodded her head and brushed the irritating curls from her forehead. “Aye. ’Tis about kissin’ and we dunna talk about kissin’ in front of men.”

Rowan watched Arline’s face burn with a blend of surprise and embarrassment. His fatherly instincts took control of his good senses. “Kissin’?” Why would his four-year-old daughter need to discuss such a topic?

Arline rolled her eyes and turned Lily around to look at her. “Lily, we do no’ discuss things like that with other men,” Arline tried to explain.

Lily looked confused. “Other men? What kind of men are there?” she asked innocently.

That particular question could have taken hours to answer, hours that Arline was not quite ready to spend. “Never mind. Ye can talk in front of yer da, child. Go ahead, what is it ye want to say?”

Lily hesitated a moment before she spoke. “I hit Robert,” she said solemnly. “He kissed me!”

Monumental efforts not to laugh out loud were made by both adults in the room. Lily waited quietly, not at all certain if she were going to be in trouble for hitting her friend.

Rowan cleared his throat as he came to kneel before his daughter. “Robert kissed ye?” he asked, feigning insult. “I should slay the impudent and brazen lad!”

Lily’s eyes grew wide with horror. “Nay, da! Ye canna do that!”

Rowan tilted his head, looking quite serious. “I canna slay the young man that stole a kiss from me daughter? Pray tell, why no’?”

“Because I like him!” Lily answered as if her father were mayhap one of the most daft individuals to ever grace the earth. She rolled her eyes and turned back to Arline. “I kent he wouldna understand.”

“If ye like him, then why’d ye hit him when he kissed ye?” Rowan asked, puzzled by his four-year-old daughter’s behavior.

Another eye roll nearly sent Rowan fleeing from the room to look for a quiet place in which to die from laughter. Knowing she’d never trust him again if he laughed at her, he willed his face to retain the frown he had painted there. He was too old and his daughter far too young for conversations such as these.

Arline decided mayhap now was the time to explain. “Don’t ye see? She likes the young Robert.”

Now it made perfectly good sense. If one were a four-year-old girl. Or a full-grown female. As a man, he couldn’t wrap his head around the logic. His ignorance must have been plainly evidenced by the bewildered expression on his face, for Arline gave a roll of her own eyes. That explained where Lily had picked up the habit.

“She likes the lad, Rowan. Lily and I have discussed this recent realization on her part. She’s far too young fer kisses and Robert is an older lad, at six, ye ken. And she doesna want the lads to think they can steal kisses whenever they wish.”

That he understood completely. While Rowan taught his daughter how to protect herself and the keep from enemy invasions, Arline was teaching her how to protect herself from something far worse than invaders from the north, the Huns, or even the English. She was teaching Lily to protect herself from the opposite sex.

“That’s right,” Lily interjected. “They must ask ye first, fer permission and he has to understand that if I say no and he still tries to kiss me, I get to hit him.”

Were his daughter a few years older, this current conversation would be far less adorable. Arline could never leave him. He needed her to have these uncomfortable conversation with his daughter. His advice would have been far less eloquent and more a long the lines of warning Lily that he’d kill any lad that tried to steal even the most innocent of kisses. He would have to permanently erase from his mind the memories of being a young lad if he were to survive his daughter growing older.

Arline stood and gave a nod of approval to Lily. “Now run and get yer cloak and things and wait fer me below stairs. I’ll be along shortly.”

Lily smiled and left the room in a hurry, leaving her bewildered father and proud governess behind.

Rowan watched his daughter leave the room before turning to face Arline. “Me daughter’s first kiss,” he said with a smile. “I dunnae if I should be proud of how well she handled herself or worried that the kisses are startin’ so young.”

Arline returned his smile, feeling much the same way as he did. “I think both feelin’s are appropriate.”

Rowan chuckled slightly and ran a hand across his face. “She’s a wee young, don’ ye think? Fer kisses?”

“I’m sure it was an innocent kiss, Rowan. I do no’ think young Robert will be askin’ fer her hand any time soon.” Her heart melted over Rowan’s concern for his daughter.

“I remember me first kiss,” he said with a smile. “I was a bit older, ye ken. I was nine and she was eight. Her name was Ella McElroy.” Arline could see the memory was a fond one for his smile said more than words could. There was a devilish twinkle in his eyes as he spoke of it.

“I told her I had somethin’ to show her, hidden behind the stables. It had taken me a week to work up the courage to kiss her. Och! ’Twas an innocent kiss, to be certain. I pecked her lips and then ran like the devil was chasin’ me!”

Arline could not resist laughing at the image he painted. She almost asked if he still ran after stealing kisses from unsuspecting young women, but thought better of it.

“When was yers?” he asked innocently.

“When was my what?” she answered, uncertain as to what he meant.

“Yer first kiss?”

She froze for a very long moment, her smile leaving rapidly. This was very uncomfortable and humiliating territory. Looking away, she answered in short, clipped words. “I’m sure I do no’ remember.”

Not knowing her circumstances or much of her life, he neither believed her nor realized it was an uncomfortable topic. “Och! Everyone remembers their first kiss, lass!”

She ignored him, left him standing in the middle of her bedchamber as she returned to her dressing room. Her face was hot, burning with mortification and she did not want to explain anything to him.

Rowan came to stand in the doorway between her sleeping chamber and dressing room. “Lass, there be nothin’ to be embarrassed over. Not everyone’s first kiss was as romantic as mine.” He was smiling, trying his best to add some levity to the moment. He hadn’t meant to embarrass her, but his curiosity had been piqued.

She was a woman full grown, married twice, and yet she had blushed like a young maiden when he asked the question. Lady Arline was a bold, brave woman, yet this topic seemed to unsettle her.

Arline stood with her back to him, pretending to sort through her trunk in search of something. Her chest hurt, her eyes stung as an empty feeling draped over her.

Rowan began to wonder why she refused to discuss something as simple as a first kiss. He studied her closely, saw her shoulders fall as if weighted down by some unseen force. Although he could not see her face, he sensed she was despondent, but why?

Mayhap her first kiss was not a kind one? Mayhap it had been a horrible experience, one that had scarred her, left her feeling sad and ashamed. Suddenly he felt like an oaf, an uncaring idiot for having pushed the subject and causing her pain. “Arline,” he said softly. “I be terribly sorry if I hurt yer feelin’s. I didna realize that mayhap yer first kiss is not one ye wish to remember. I be sorry, lass.”

She could have left it alone then, let him believe whatever he wished. But the pity in his voice irritated her, like sand caught between her toes. It ground and aggravated and sent her over the edge of reason.

Arline spun around to look at him. “Me first kiss? Do ye truly want to ken the truth, Rowan?”

He started to speak, but was at a loss. Her eyes burned with more than anger. They were filled with hurt, pain, and something he could not quite identify. He decided it best to remain silent for now.

“The truth of the matter is this Rowan. Standing before ye is a woman full-grown, a woman of almost five and twenty and she’s never been kissed.” She threw the words at him like rocks, for the sole purpose of hurting him, even though in truth, the last thing she ever wanted to do was hurt him. But threw them she did for she was tired of being alone with her pain and sorrow and longing.

He looked at her as though she had just sprouted an extra set of arms. “But ye’ve been married, lass! Twice! How can ye be married twice and no’ be kissed?” He couldn’t imagine being married to her and not kissing her at least a hundred times a day.

“Twice?” Her voice became louder and more venomous. “I’ve been married three times! Three bloody times and no’ one kiss! No one stole a kiss from me as a wee lass! No one stole a kiss from me as a maiden fer I was married at five and ten!” She waved her arms in the air. “So there ye have it, Rowan! I have no’ fond memories of kisses to tell ye!”

Rowan shook his head slowly, his mouth open but he had no words. He couldn’t fathom it, none of it. Her ire, the fury flashing in her eyes, her gritted teeth, told him she was in fact telling him the truth. Still, it was hard to believe. A woman as bonny, nay as beautiful, as the one standing before him had never been kissed?

“Arline, I be sorry, but I truly canna understand it. I had no idea,” he paused trying to find the words to express his regret as well as his shock. “I did no’ ken ye’d been married three times and I just assumed ye’d been kissed a thousand times.” It’s what he would have done were he her husband.

She pursed her lips together to keep from cursing. She drew in a short breath and tried to shake the anger out through her fingertips. “A thousand times?” Was the man daft? Had the stone floor his skull hit just yester morn shaken all his good sense loose?

He took a moment to gather his thoughts before speaking again. “I ken ye do no’ like to speak of personal things, but, please, can ye explain it to me?”

Arline looked into his eyes. She saw nothing but concern blended with curiosity and confusion. He hadn’t asked her to explain it in order to torment her or to hurt her. His question was born of genuine concern. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves before answering.

“I was five and ten when I married Carlich Lindsay. He was old enough to be my great-grandsire,” she cleared away the walnut sized lump in her throat that always came with his memory. “He was a verra good man. He treated me more like a favorite granddaughter than a wife. We became verra dear friends. He kissed me hand at our weddin’.” She felt her face growing warm for it was extremely difficult to explain to anyone, least of all to the man standing before her.

“He couldna,” she stumbled briefly over the word and had to try twice before it would leave her mouth. “He couldna consummate the marriage because of his age and he didna have any romantic feelin’s fer me. But I loved him and he loved me just the same. He was a verra good man.”

She began to feel tired. She closed the lid to the trunk and sat on it. Fidgeting with the sleeve of her dress she went on with the rest of the sordid details of her marriages.

“I returned to Ireland after Carlich’s death. Me da gave me a year of mournin’, and aye, I did mourn his loss.” He had been the only man in her life to show her what unconditional love was, even if it were paternal and not romantic or marital. “Me da arranged me second marriage a few months after I came out of mournin’. He was a Frenchman, Lombard de Sotuhans, from Gascony. We were married by proxy, and me da didna even tell me until three days before I left for France. The only thing I knew of him was that he was no’ nearly as old as Carlich. We traveled for over a month to reach his home only to learn that he had died the week before. He had drowned. I met him at his funeral.”

Marriage by proxy was not unheard of and although Rowan had never had the displeasure of meeting Orthanach Fitzgerald in person, he would not put such a tactic passed him. From what little he was able to glean from Arline, her father was neither an amiable sort nor a giving one.

“I was no’ quite one and twenty then. I ken me da wanted me to marry right away, but I held me ground. And rumors had begun to spread that I was an unlucky wife. It mattered no’ what me circumstances were.” Strangely enough, she began to feel better with telling the true story of her life to someone. Telling it aloud made it seem less daunting, less unreal.

“And what of yer marriage to Garrick?” Rowan asked. He remained near the doorway, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest. The story of how she became married to Garrick and how that marriage subsequently became annulled was in Rowan’s mind, the most important.

She drew a deep breath in through her nostrils and finally looked up at Rowan. “’Twas yet another arranged marriage.” The marriage that for at least a few days had held the most promise and hope. Garrick had ground her dreams into a fine powder that blew away on winds of despair.

“Lily mentioned yer sisters,” Rowan said. “That ye only married Garrick because of them.”

“I only told her the story to gain her trust. If she kent that I hadn’t married him willingly, then she’d feel safer with me,” she explained. “But aye, ’tis true. Me da tried everythin’ to get me to agree to marry Garrick. I had developed a verra sour taste toward marriage, ye ken. I wanted only to leave Ireland, to take me sisters far away, somewhere safe. Me da knew too well how I love me sisters. He threatened to take them away from me, hide them some place where I could never find them or see them again. I couldna let that happen.”

The tears she’d been holding back began to escape. Frustrated, she wiped them away and took deep breaths. “I love me sisters, more than anythin’. I ken what me da is capable of. ’Tisn’t like ye and Lily. He has no fond feelin’s fer me, he doesna care if I am in a happy marriage or a miserable one. I’m nothin’ more than chattel, to be bartered with, used. So I married Garrick to keep me sisters safe.”

Though she didn’t say it out loud, he could hear her speak the words he’d heard her say on more than one occasion. Because it was the right thing to do. She would sacrifice her own happiness so that her two sisters could be safe.

“And how did it come to be annulled, Arline?” He’d been wanting to know the answer to that question for weeks.

She pushed herself to her feet and turned away from him. She spoke to him over her shoulder. “Garrick had no desire to marry me. He was pushed into it by his father. Ye see, Garrick was in love with a woman named Ona but his da hated her because she was Scots. I think his da thought if he married me, Garrick would come to love me. But that was no’ the case.

“Garrick had a clause put into the marriage contract. It said if I didn’t give birth or conceive a child with him after one year, a month and a day, then he could have the marriage annulled.”

There it was, like a kick in the gut. She was as Thomas had feared, barren. He felt like crawling away now, to hide his pain and anguish. He started to speak but Arline went on.

“Garrick made certain there’d be no bairns.”

Rowan’s brow knitted, and he came away from the wall. “What do ye mean, he made certain there’d be no bairns.”

“Our marriage was never…” she paused, embarrassed and humiliated. “’Twas never made official. On our weddin’ day, he gave me a verra chaste kiss on me cheek. And other than the beatins he gave me, he never touched me. He never shared me bed.”

Good lord, she was a virgin! As pure as the day she was born! He wanted to shout, to dance about the room, to shout with glee! She wasn’t barren, she was pure! Untouched!

He stood mute all the while his insides were dancing with joy at this revelation. He could ask for her hand. They could build a life together.

He could not hide his glee as a grand smile formed on his lips. He was just about to go to her, take her in his arms and kiss her, when she turned to look at him.

There it was. His dashing smile and perfectly white teeth. She’d been wrong. He found amusement in her pain, in her humiliation. Her voice, along with that tiny last morsel of hope that she’d clung to all these weeks, left her.

She felt hollow, unworthy, stupid and foolish. She grabbed her cloak from the peg and swept by him before he could respond.

“Arline,” he called after her. “Wait!”

She stopped in the doorway and whirled around to face him. She’d be damned if she’d let him torment her further. “Go to hell, Rowan Graham.”

Had he been closer, she would have slapped the smile from his face. Instead, she turned and ran from the room.

Twenty-Three

Arline pulled on her cloak as she raced down the stairs. The children were playing at the bottom, waiting patiently for her. Robert, Jenny, Lily, and seven other little ones, all happy and unaware of her distress.

They squealed with delight as she swept passed them in a hurry, thinking mayhap it was a game. Arline flung open the door, her gaggle of children following happily on her heals. She paid them no mind as she raced down the stairs and into the courtyard.

The cold air pricked at her wet cheeks and made her lungs ache when she breathed in. Her feet sank into the frozen snow, hitting her somewhere mid calf, but she did not care.

Her only thought was to get away. Away from this keep and away from Rowan Graham and his blasted perfect smile. She could barely hear the children as they called out, begging for her to slow down. Her heart beat wildly against her chest as the blood ran cold through her veins.

The closer she drew to the inner wall of the keep, the deeper the snow became. Soon, she was trudging through icy cold snow up to her knees. Her anger and humiliation pushed her forward.

“Open the gate!” she called up to the men standing guard on the wall. “Open the bloody gate!”

The two men looked befuddled by her order as they peered down over the ledge at her. A quick glance in their direction told her they would not heed her request. Damned bloody men!

She could now hear Rowan’s voice shouting over the din of the children. Arline glanced over her shoulder to see that he was chasing after her, his movements slowed by the clamoring children and the snow.

Certain there had to be a door somewhere along the wall, she veered left, determined to find a way out of this place. The further east she went, the deeper the snow. The wind had carried it in, over the tall walls where it built up inch by inch until it almost reached the top of the wall. If she couldn’t find a door, she’d climb the mountain of snow and scale the wall. Reason and good sense had fled the moment she saw Rowan smiling at her in her dressing room. She didn’t care if she froze to death. She was determined to get as far away from here as she could. Her heart could simply stand no more.

As she struggled through and up the large bank of snow, she knew she was being stupid by running away. Mayhap she truly didn’t want to run far away, mayhap just away from Rowan for a time, to gather her wits and pride.

The more she struggled the more she realized the recklessness of her folly. Her hands began to ache, along with her feet and legs. The snow clung to the hems of her skirts and to her cloak. Mayhap, this wasn’t the best of ideas.

She stopped at the peak of the snow bank, her head just an inch or two from the top of the wall. Freedom lay on the other side. But freedom from what?

She turned around and saw the group of children. They had stopped following and now stood huddled together watching her. One by one they began to question if this was a grand game or if Lady Arline had lost her mind.

Arline caught sight of Lily standing in the middle of the group. Her heart paused a beat or two when she saw the look of fear on the precious child’s face. She could not leave Lily, not like this, in such a mad and immature fashion. What would the child learn from this? That when things got to be too much to bear, you went running out, improperly dressed, crying like a fool and risking your life?

Then she saw Rowan, trudging through the snow and he looked furious. All sense of reason left her mind then. Quickly, she turned around and reached up to the top of the wall, her fingers slipping once, then twice.

“Arline!” Rowan called out, his voice echoing in the still morning air, bouncing off the walls. “Stop!”

She decided it would serve him right for laughing if she made it to the top of the wall then slipped and broke her neck. He could blame no one but himself if she suffered some horrible injury. Would he laugh then? Or would he live the rest of his life, riddled with guilt?

She let loose with a deep growl, tried once again to grab the top of the wall. Success! It nearly made her wet herself!

She pulled up, with all her might, flung her tired, heavy legs over the cold stone wall, her bare thighs screaming in protest at the frigid air that whirled under her skirts and then again when her bare skin touched the icy cold stones.

Moments later, she was on top of the wall, laying flat, and looking down. Blessed be the saints! More snow was packed into a large, deep drift on the opposite side. She had fallen farther than this down the embankment all those many weeks ago.

Taking a deep breath she sat upright and jumped.

Fell was a more apt description. And as she floated through the air, she heard Rowan and all of his men calling out after her, begging her to stop.

She landed on her feet, fell to her knees, then ended up planting her face in the snow. Muttering curses under her breath, damning Rowan Graham to an eternity in hell, she pushed herself up, slowly. Never, in all her days had she been so cold!

She wiped as much of the snow as she could from her face and ran. She ran as fast as her numbingly cold legs and feet would carry her. Ignoring the men who called out for her as well as the pounding in her head, she half fell and half ran, like a crazed woman, to the outer curtain wall.

The edges of the wall tapered the closer it got to the loch. The snow had drifted over the top of it, nearest the shortest ends. It was, she knew, a ludicrous decision she had made, but she was too overcome with anger to give a damn.

She fell again not far from the outer wall. The men continued to shout, but her heart was pounding too loudly to hear them clearly. She was tiring, far too quickly. Her arms and legs felt as though they were chained to large boulders. And the more she struggled against the snow the heavier they became.

There seemed to be a direct correlation between her weighted limbs and the heaviness of her heart. She had nowhere to run to, no place to seek refuge, nowhere to hide. With those glaring facts staring her in the face, she did the only thing she could think of. She plopped down on her rump, hung her head in shame and cried.

If she froze to death, she’d have no one to blame but herself. ’Twasn’t Rowan’s fault she was sitting in the cold snow. ’Twasn’t Rowan’s fault she was nearly five and twenty and never kissed.

Many times over the years, she had been complimented on her good sense. Her good sense seemed to fly out the window each time she was near Rowan Graham. He could not help it if he was a perfect specimen of God’s good work. He could not help the fact that he had been blessed with a magnificent form, perfect teeth, or a gorgeous smile that always made her stomach flutter whenever he cast one her way.

Large tears left icy trails down her red cheeks. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed without restraint. She was freezing, cold, and filled with anguish and there was no one to blame but her own ridiculous pride.

The men behind her continued to shout, indecipherable words that were lost in the winter air. She could hear Rowan’s deep voice shouting something, but her pride kept her from looking back just yet. He could wait a few moments more.

Her fingers and toes began to sting from all the snow. Recognizing it would serve no purpose to remain seated in the snow for she could cry just as easily within the warm confines of the castle, she took a deep breath and made the decision to quit acting like an inglorious fool and head back to the keep. Rowan would undoubtedly be furious with her and she couldn’t rightly blame him. Governesses were probably hard to come by.

She started to roll sideways when she heard something as it flew past her ear. “I’m no’ dead yet yet blasted buzzards,” she muttered. They were probably circling her thinking she’d soon be dead. The thought of buzzards feasting away on her dead corpse gave her a burst of energy. She rolled to her hands and knees and pushed herself up.

“That’s odd,” she said out loud as she looked at the curtain wall. It seemed Rowan had called every one of his men to the wall. They were waving their arms and shouting. “What in the world?” she whispered.

It took only another short moment for it to become clear that something was wrong. Whatever it was, instinct told her not to tarry, to run as fast as she could back to the keep.

As she raced back to the keep, she noticed archers taking positions along the wall. Were they going to shoot her? Seriously doubting that Rowan would order her shot for deserting her position as a governess, she tried to pick up speed. They weren’t aiming at her, but something behind her.

Her first thought was mayhap they had seen a pack of wolves encircling her to make a meal out of her. Not wanting to be any animal’s dinner, she ignored the stinging sensation in her feet and legs and did her best to pick up speed. Mayhap the wolves were going to take the same route in as she had planned on taking out. Little did it matter! She had to get back inside the walls of the keep.

She bunched her heavy wet skirts and cloak in her fists, not caring if the men on the wall could see her bare legs. She would have torn off every stitch of clothing she wore if it meant she could run faster and get away from the wolves!

The image of wolves and buzzards fighting over her dead body propelled her forward. Thinking she’d climb the small mountain of snow and re-enter the keep the same way she had left it, she headed in that direction.

Someone on top of the wall called out for her to head to the gate. Thank God! She thought as she ran through the deep snow. She’d not have to try to scale the wall with a pack of wolves on her heals.

She veered left and could hear Rowan’s men shouting words of encouragement and barking out orders. Chastising her ignorance and ill-conceived notion of running away, she did her best to keep moving toward the gate. She had not realized how far away from the keep she had been able to get until she had to race back to it.

The gate soon appeared in her line of vision and relief began to build in her belly. Whatever punishment Rowan planned to inflict, she’d gladly accept it if she could make it through the large wooden gate without wolves tearing at her skin.

Just as the gate began to swing open, she felt another bird whoosh past her ear. It caught her off guard, which in turn caused her to lose her balance and stumble again. Taking no time to try and figure out why birds were flying around her, she picked herself up and moved forward.

The gate had not opened completely, just enough for her to slip through, if she made it that far unscathed. It wasn’t until the third bird flew past her ear that she finally realized it was in fact not a bird, but an arrow.

Her heart leapt into her throat when she felt the arrow pierce her cloak from behind, tearing through the thick wool, before landing a foot in front of her. The sudden awareness that it was not a pack of wolves chasing her but someone hell bent on piercing her skin with an arrow made her blood run cold. The sound of arrows as they flew overhead was both terrifying and a relief. Hopefully Rowan’s archers were much better with their aim than the fool behind her.

She was almost to the open gate, mayhap only twenty or thirty feet left before she could squeeze through to safety. She peered through the opening and saw Rowan coming toward her. He was mounted on a large grey, his broadsword drawn, a look of utter fury and bloodlust painted on his face.

She knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that his fury was not directed toward her, but at whomever it was that was shooting arrows at her.

Rowan was racing across the snow-covered courtyard to save her! Why she had that particular thought at that particular moment proved the depths of her insanity. I am an eejit! She thought as she gave her shoulders a mental shake. She had to make it through the gate.

Rowan headed toward her, the grey struggling through the heavy snow. He let out a blood-curdling yell as he kicked at the grey’s sides, urging the horse forward.

She was almost to the gate when the last arrow from the bastard behind her found its mark. Tearing through her cloak, then through skin, it pierced her upper left shoulder. Stunned, she gasped, unable to cry out. The pain was so immense, so unbearable that she could not utter a word or a sound.

The world began to spin as her vision blurred and dimmed. She fell to her knees and looked down. The arrow had pierced clean through. She could see its tip quite clearly, dripping with blood and bits of flesh.

The last thing she remembered before the world went dark was thinking what a bloody fool she was.

Twenty Four

There were only three times in Rowan Graham’s life that he could recall feeling this afraid and this furious at once. The first was when Kate had succumbed to the Black Death and then again when he had learned Lily had been taken.

The third occurrence happened when he saw the attacker’s arrow had pierced Arline’s back.

Had he not been chasing the angry redhead through the deep snow, he would have heard his men shout the warning cry the first time. As it was, he had not heard it until Arline began to climb over the first wall. Had he continued to chase after her, to climb over the wall, chances were great that the arrows that came flying in from south too would have felled him.

There was no time to contemplate a plan of action. Rowan called out for someone to bring him a horse -- and to forget saddling it -- and for the children to get back inside the keep.

His men on the wall had seen the riders as they approached. Later, Rowan had learned that his men at first had thought that it was either Daniel or Frederick returning from the mission they had left on yester morn. Once they saw that the riders did not carry Clan Graham colors draped from their saddles, they instinctively called out that riders were approaching. Still, they thought it possible the five mounted men might be travelers only seeking shelter from the harsh winter weather.

Rowan had missed that first call for he’d been trudging through the blasted snow, pursuing a tetched redheaded woman who had gradually taken possession of his heart. The possession of his heart turned into all out control of his good and common sense.

When the men on the wall saw one of the men retrieve a bow from his back, they gave the warning cry of attack. That call brought Rowan’s pursuit of the object of his ire to a complete halt and sent him flying into defensive action.

As his men tried to gain Arline’s attention by waving their arms and shouting their warnings of possible impending attack, Rowan scrambled back down the large mound of snow, calling out his orders as he made his way toward the stables.

The snow had made things quite difficult and had slowed him down considerably. If he were slowed by the damned white stuff, then the attackers would be having trouble as well. God willing he would be able to get to Arline before the bastards outside could.

Men poured out of the keep to answer the battle cry. Many had not even bothered to don cloaks or gloves. Women were ushering the terrified children in doors.

 Red John came running as fast as he could, holding the reins to a grey gelding. Rowan did not wait for the horse to stop or even settle down from the excitement of having been removed from his warm stall. Grabbing a handful of its main, Rowan pulled himself up and flung a leg over the grey’s back. He grabbed the reins from Red John and headed toward the gate. Someone tossed him a broadsword as he kicked the horse and pushed forward.

His feeling of relief when the gate opened and he saw how close Arline was to safety was short lived. He was just beginning to pass through the gate when one of the dozen or so arrows the attackers had sent flying finally hit its mark.

The arrow had pierced somewhere in her back. Time came to an abrupt halt, as did the beating of his heart when he saw the tip of the arrow come through the front of her cloak.

Time started up again, wretchedly surreal and horrifying. Rowan could remember little else after that point. He could not recall moving forward and only knew that he had when he reached her, slid down from his horse and crawled to her.

Arline lay on her side, motionless, but still breathing, as the snow darkened to a hideous shade of blood red. Chaos had erupted all around him as men came flooding out of the gate and arrows from his archers flew over head. Battle cries were muffled by the pounding of his heart.

 Thomas had come to his aid and was shouting at Rowan over the din of the attack. Long moments passed before Rowan could make any sense out of what Thomas was saying.

“I’ll take her back to the keep, Rowan!” Thomas shouted. “Ye go get the bloody bastards!”

He did not possess the ability to think at the moment, he could only feel. Anguish, loss, fury, pain. He wanted to direct it all at Thomas, for had the man not repeatedly insisted that Rowan could not ask for Arline’s hand, she’d not have an arrow jutting through her shoulder. The snow would not have turned red with her blood this day. Instead, it would be stained with the blood of the attackers.

Rowan blinked away the anger and frustration. He’d deal with Thomas later. Now he had to get Arline to the keep. He could not allow the man in whose fault this all lay touch the woman he loved.

“Get yer hands off her!” Rowan seethed through gritted teeth as he pushed Thomas away. “Stay the bloody hell away from her!”

Thomas was by no means stupid or feeble minded. He understood all too clearly that Rowan blamed him for Arline’s injuries. He also understood how Rowan would come to that conclusion for he had thought the very same. This however, was not the time to lay or take blame. It was time to act.

“Damn it, Rowan!” Thomas shouted back. “Go after them! Ye’ll never forgive yerself if ye don’ go after the men who did this!”

Rowan regretted the fact that Thomas knew him all too well. As they had argued, several of his men passed by on horses in fast pursuit of the attackers. Rowan bent and tenderly kissed Arline’s cheek and whispered a promise in her ear.

I shall avenge ye, lass, I swear it. Please, do no’ leave me.

A moment later, he was scrambling onto the back of the grey gelding and heading off to kill every last one of the bastards who had done this.

Ora and Thomas had successfully removed the arrow from Arline’s shoulder before Rowan returned to the keep. Her clothes had been cut away and she lay semi-conscious on a trestle table in the gathering room, covered up to her breasts with a linen sheet. She mumbled incoherently as Ora went about cleaning the blood from the still bleeding wound.

He had arrived just in time to help with cauterizing her wounds.

 “I think the snow helped slow the bleedin’,” Ora told Rowan as she tended to Arline. “But it be too soon to ken how she’ll fare.”

Ora had been the clan’s healer for more than ten years. She had tended to every conceivable illness and battle wound. Rowan trusted her implicitly. He could not speak just yet, his worry over Arline paralyzing his voice. Helpless to do anything but offer her comfort, Rowan stepped to the table and held Arline’s hand.

Ora had given Arline a potion to drink to help knock her out so that she would not be awake during the process. Unfortunately it hadn’t taken full affect when Thomas placed the red-hot iron to her wound. Her scream would forever remain branded in Rowan’s memory as one of the most horrific wails he had ever heard. He prayed she would soon wake and speak to him. He did not want that the sound of her scream and subsequent curses and cries to be his last memory of her.

Thankfully, she had lost consciousness and remained that way during the rest of the procedure. Once the wound was cauterized and Ora agreed that Arline could be moved, Rowan carried the sleeping lass to his room. With great care and devotion, he placed her in his bed, covered her with furs and stayed by her side.

It would be some time before anyone could answer the question of who in his right mind would attack a keep in the middle of winter with only five men. The men who had attacked were of no use to anyone. Their frozen corpses waited burial in the dungeon below the keep.

It had taken little time for Rowan and his men to catch up to them and even less time to slay all five. His only regret was not being able to glean any information from them. They had foolishly chosen to attempt to defend themselves against fifty of Rowan’s men.

Two long, distressing days passed by slowly. Rowan would not leave Arline’s side but for a few moments at a time and only to take care of the most pressing business -- finding out who was behind the attack. Besides Arline, the most urgent matter at hand was the missing Frederick and the seven men who were with him. They had not been seen nor heard from since the day Rowan had sent them to check on the men at the borders.

Dawn arrived peacefully on the morning of the third day. Arline was kept heavily sedated to keep her from harming her injury or from feeling any amount of pain. Arline rarely moved and at times it was difficult to tell if she still breathed.

Lily was beside herself with grief. The nightmares had intensified, making it difficult for her to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time. No one was able to comfort the child. Worried that Lily might become exhausted and over wrought with worry, Rowan had a pallet brought to his room and placed between the fire and his bed. He and Lily slept side by side, under several thick furs. She slept fitfully throughout the night at first, but thankfully had finally been able to sleep for longer stretches.

Rowan had not shaved and had barely eaten over the course of his bedside vigil. On the morn of the fourth day, he dozed in a chair he had pulled next to the bed. He held Arline’s hand, though he doubted she was aware he was even in the room, let alone holding her hand.

He was roused awake by the sound of many heavy boots and excited utterances taking place outside his room. Moments later, Frederick rushed in with Daniel, Thomas, and several other men fast on his heals.

Frederick halted just inside the doorway, his eyes immediately going to the sleeping form on the bed.

“Christ,” he muttered as he rushed to stand beside Arline. Daniel and the others followed suit. The room seemed to grow much smaller when it was filled with so many big Highlanders.

Rowan rose to his feet, relieved to see his missing men. They looked like hell, with wind-burned faces and disheveled clothes. “Thank God!” Rowan said as he came around the side of the bed to shake Frederick’s hand. “What the hell happened?”

Frederick drew Rowan in and slapped his back. “I could ask ye the same question,” he said as he withdrew and turned back to look at Lady Arline.

Rowan sighed heavily and ran a hand across his several days growth of beard. “Ye look like hell, Frederick.” He had noticed what looked like dried blood on Frederick’s green tunic.

“Och!” Frederick smiled as he looked down at his chest. “I look better than the bastard I gutted. And ye do no’ look too well yerself, Rowan.”

Rowan ignored the comment. He took Frederick by the arm and led him away from the bed. The group of men followed and huddled together. Speaking in hushed tones so as not to disturb Lady Arline, Frederick began his tale.

“When we left we went first to our borders on the East. All was well there. The men were able to seek shelter in the hut. They received a good amount of snow and were glad to see us. We spent the night there and headed back the next morn. I left their replacements and brought Aaron, Sam, and Brown Thomas back with us. All was well until we reached the southern borders.” He paused for a moment, shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. Rowan bade him to continue.

“Rowan, it was a massacre. A damned bloody massacre!” he said angrily. He caught himself and lowered his voice. “Derrick, young Phillip, and Red Daniel were dead. The bastards had left their heads on spikes. Flung their innards in the trees. God only kens where the rest of them be.”

Rowan swallowed back the bile and anger that rose in his throat. They had been good men, young men. Red Daniel was married and had two wee bairns. Phillip was barely old enough to shave and Derrick was not much older. Rowan hung his head, dreading the thought that he would have to inform the families of these good men that they were not coming home.

“We buried what we could, Rowan,” Frederick offered solemnly.

Rowan placed a hand on Frederick’s shoulder. “Thank ye, Frederick. I’ll speak to their families soon.”

Frederick cleared his throat before going on. “Derrick’s auldest brother, Patrick, was with me, Rowan. He’s agreed no’ to tell his mum and da the whole truth. We,” his voice cracked as tears welled in his eyes. “We didna think they needed to ken the entirety of it.”

Rowan agreed that it was probably best. ’Twas bad enough to know they were gone. To know their bodies had been so violated, slaughtered, would serve no good purpose.

“We left there as soon as we could, Rowan. About two days ago, we came across a group of six men, hiding out in the caves near Loch Breen.” Frederick cast a glance at Domnal who was standing to his right. Domnal had been there and was visibly shaken. It had been his first experience in hand-to-hand combat.

“They put up one hell of a fight, Rowan.”

Rowan raised an eyebrow. “How good a fight?”

“Good enough that we had to believe they were no’ Garrick’s men. They fought far too well.”

For days, Rowan had been convinced that Garrick Blackthorn was behind the attack, for several reasons. The main reason being that Garrick was the only man he knew who was foolish enough to attack in this weather and to send just five men. “I was certain it was Blackthorn men who had attacked. They wore no colors to prove it either way. We didna find anything in their belongings to identify them or who they may have fought for.”

“They were no’ Blackthorn’s men,” Domnal said quietly.

“Domnal is right,” Frederick added. “They were no’ Blackthorn men.”

Rowan waited patiently for someone to tell him who the hell it was that had killed his men and had tried to attack the keep. “Well?” he demanded, growing impatient.

“They were hired mercenaries. We were able to get information from one of the bastards before he died.” Frederick smiled wanly. “There are many more men coming, Rowan.”

Confusion grew on Rowan’s face. “What the hell do ye mean?”

“Someone hired these men. Supposedly, the six we came across were to remain at the border to wait fer reinforcements. They were instructed to kill any Graham man, woman or child they came across. They were to show no mercy. We learned that five men were sent ahead, to watch the keep. I can only assume that they attacked Lady Arline because she was out in the open.”

“That doesna make a damned bit of sense!” Rowan growled. “Did they no’ think we’d retaliate? Did they no’ think we’d fight back?”

“Nay, they did no’,” Frederick answered. “Fer they were told there were but a handful of auld men and women at the keep. They were told our men would no’ be here, ye’d all be drawn away and fightin’ to the west.”

The more Rowan learned, the less he knew. He shook his head in dismay. “None of this makes a damned bit o’ sense,” Rowan muttered. “How could anyone ken we’d no’ be here?”

“Because we were to have been attacked a sennight ago,” Frederick answered.

The storm had hit a sennight ago. Clarity dawned and Rowan’s eyes grew wide. “The storm.”

“Aye,” Frederick said. “The storm.”

“It stopped them from attackin’.”

“Aye, it did.”

They stood facing one another as the same thought that had occurred to Frederick suddenly occurred to Rowan. “If they were delayed by four days, that means,”

Frederick finished his line of thinking. “We could be attacked at any moment.”

“Bloody hell!” Rowan shouted.

“Aye,” Frederick said as he followed Rowan out of the room. “Bloody hell is right!”

Rowan found Selina in the hallway. “Find Lily now!” he barked. “Take her to my room. Send the healer there! Do no’ leave either me daughter’s nor Arline’s side.”

Selina did not take the time to question his order. She spun around to go find Lily.

Rowan shouted out orders as he thundered down the stairs. People were sent in different directions with orders to prepare for an imminent attack. In moments, the keep was a flurry of activity.

Frederick had tried unsuccessfully to gain Rowan’s attention as they bounded toward Rowan’s library. “Rowan!” Frederick shouted to his chief’s back. “There be more!”

Rowan flung open the door to his library. “I want every able-bodied man assembled in the gathering room within a quarter of an hour!” Rowan shot the order to one of his men.

Frederick shook his head and grabbed Rowan by the arm. “Rowan, I need ye to listen!”

“What is it?” Rowan ground out.

“There should be three hundred men, to the west of us. They’re waiting fer their orders to attack. They’ll no’ move an inch until they receive them.” Frederick waited impatiently for that information to sink in.

Rowan mulled this bit of news over in his mind. They could not withstand an attack of this magnitude. Whether their unknown enemy was well trained or not did not even factor into the equation. The enemy had sheer numbers on their side. Hope began to wane and he grew increasingly worried.

“Rowan, do no’ give up hope just yet,” Frederick said hopefully. “All is no’ lost, ye ken?”

“No I do no’ ken! We canna withstand an invasion of three hundred men.”

A smile grew on Frederick’s face. “Nay, we canna withstand an invasion. But, we can make certain the invasion never takes place.”

For a brief moment, Rowan thought mayhap Frederick had lost his mind. Curiosity begged him to ask the question. “What do ye have in mind?”

Frederick threw his head back and laughed heartily, sealing Rowan’s previous opinion as it pertained to the man’s soundness of mind.

“Och, Rowan,” Frederick said. “Pour me a wee dram and I’ll tell ye exactly what I be thinkin’.”

Less than an hour later, Rowan, Frederick and the others departed from their meeting in the library. Rowan was not only convinced that Frederick was indeed in complete control of his faculties, but that the man was brilliant.

Two hours later, Frederick, Daniel and nine of Rowan’s best fighting men had left the keep and headed west. If Frederick’s plan worked -- and there was a very good chance that it would -- then the impending attack on Áit na Síochána would never take place. Only time would tell.

On the off chance that Frederick and Daniel failed, Rowan had dispatched messengers to his closest ally, Caelen McDunnah, asking for his help in defending Áit na Síochána.

After his men left, Rowan donned a cloak and left the keep, heading directly to the chapel. It was a place he hadn’t stepped foot in since Kate’s death. He had stopped praying four years ago. This afternoon seemed as good a time as any to start again.

The chapel, a small stone building, stood on the east side of the keep. It was a simple, utilitarian building that could hold some two hundred people.

They had lost so many people four years ago, including their priest. Rowan, having given up on God, had made no attempts to find a replacement. The Black Death had been all the proof that Rowan needed to believe that God had turned His back on Rowan and his clan.

His stable master, Red John, acted as a priest of sorts, though not a celibate nor sober one. Nay, Red John was married and had eight children -- seven sons and a daughter. Still, he was the most qualified in that he had memorized the Bible, could recite any passage from memory, and most people considered him a kind, generous, and godly man. So he stepped in and led services three times a week.

Rowan paused outside the door of the chapel for several long moments. Before he entered, he asked for forgiveness for waiting so long to return and for thinking God had abandoned him.

Stepping inside the quiet chapel hadn’t been as difficult as he had imagined. The late afternoon sun shone through the windows, casting a soft, honeyed glow on the room. Little bits of dust floated in the air, dancing in the sunlight like tiny faeries.

He closed the door behind him and reverently walked to the altar. With no warm fires burning, his breath misted and hung in the air. Crossing himself, he knelt before God for the first time in far too many years.

Rowan prayed for many things over the next hour. He prayed repeatedly for having asininely believed that God had abandoned him when he knew it had been the other way around. Rowan had abandoned God.

He prayed for Arline, that she would recover and would agree to become his wife. He prayed for his daughter, that she would grow to be a fine young woman.

He prayed for his people, for his men whom he had sent in two opposite directions. He prayed for Lady Arline’s sisters. He even prayed for Mrs. McGregor.

He prayed for strength, patience, and the ability to see all the beauty that God had to offer and vowed never again to take things for granted. Beauty could be found everywhere, if one looked at things with one’s heart instead of one’s eyes.

Most of all, he prayed for the ability to control his temper, to be a kind and patient man to all. Just as he had begun his prayers with thoughts of Arline, he ended them there as well.

Please, God, let her live so that I might love her all the rest of me days.

Twenty-Five

Rowan returned his room and Lady Arline’s bedside with a wee bit more hope than when he had left it. Ora reported that Arline fared well and thankfully had not gained a fever. A fever meant infection and most likely death.

He hugged Lily, who had been sitting on the bed next to Arline. She looked so forlorn and full of woe that Rowan had to fight back tears. “Da,” Lily said as she sat on his lap. “Is Lady Arline goin’ to die?”

The question nearly sent him to his knees. He hugged her tighter, rubbed her back and tried to answer her question. “I do no’ think so, Lily. I went to the chapel and prayed for her.”

“Do ye think God heard ye?” Lily asked as she rested her head against his chest.

“Aye, he heard me.” But whether God would choose to grant his prayers remained to be seen. He would not pile his worries on top of hers.

Selina offered to take Lily down to the evening meal for which Rowan was grateful. Ora left with them after checking Arline’s wound.

Finally, he was alone with Arline. He brought his chair closer to her bed and took her hand in his. The dark circles under her eyes were such a stark contrast to her pale skin. What he would not give to have her wake so that he could first apologize for whatever he had done that had caused her to flee the castle. He could only pray that whatever wrong thing he had done, she could find it in her heart to forgive him.

He sat in quiet contemplation for some time, guardedly watching each shallow breath that she took. Ora had said she would soon begin to wean her from the potion that made her sleep so deeply. If kept on it too long, she might never recover, but if she woke too soon, she could be in a tremendous amount of pain. It was a dangerously precarious endeavor, trying to balance the two options.

Day finally gave way to night and still, she had not stirred. Rowan lit a candle and placed it on the table next to the bed and returned to his quiet vigil.

“Try talkin’ to her, Rowan.”

Rowan looked up to see Thomas standing in the doorway. He looked reticent, uncertain if his presence would be welcomed.

“Come in, Thomas,” Rowan said quietly. There had been a litany of things Rowan had prayed for earlier. One of those prayers had been that he would quit being an ass and stop blaming Thomas for what had happened to Arline. It was no more Thomas’ fault than it was Arline’s.

Thomas entered the room and stood across the bed from Rowan. Genuine sorrow could be seen in his eyes and countenance. “I be truly sorry, Rowan,” he whispered.

Rowan gave him a wave of his hand. “Nay. None of this is yer fault and I’m sorry fer blamin’ ye. As ye’ve witnessed in me before, auld friend, me anger sometimes makes me do and say foolish things.”

Thomas smiled his agreement. “’Tis true,” he chuckled. “It becomes more apparent when yer in love.”

Rowan could not deny that. “Aye, love makes a man sometimes act like a fool.”

“It can also bring out the best in a man,” Thomas said. “I never felt as perfect or as imperfect as when I was in love. ’Twas as if all was right with the world and I could handle anythin’.” Thomas had lost his sweet wife more than ten years ago. She had fallen down an embankment and crushed her head against a boulder. “Anythin’ but fer harm to come to me sweet Elisa.”

Rowan understood that feeling all too well. Elisa’s life had been cut far too short, as was the babe’s that she carried. Rowan doubted that Thomas would ever get over the loss.

“I am sorry, Thomas, fer bein’ an ass to ye. I hope ye can find it in yer heart to forgive me.”

Thomas shook his head. “I’ll forgive ye if ye’ll forgive me.”

So a silent agreement was made between the two friends. Rowan promised himself that he’d practice being more patient as well as not let his anger run away with his good sense.

“Ye should talk to her, Rowan,” Thomas told him again. “Let her ken that yer here.”

“I dunna ken if that is a good idea, Thomas. I’m the reason she left the keep to begin with.”

Thomas cast him a puzzled look.

“I dunna ken what I did, but I did somethin’ that angered her to the point that she fled the keep and climbed the wall to get away from me.”

Thomas looked at Arline then back to Rowan. “Ye must have done or said somethin’.”

Rowan had been wracking his brain for days trying to figure out what he might have said or done. He came up empty handed at every turn.

He recounted the events, as he remembered them, of what Arline had told him right before she fled.

“Christ,” Thomas muttered when Rowan finished. “The lass has had a rough time of it.”

Rowan nodded in agreement. “Aye, she has.”

“Did ye tell her ye were happy to learn she’s no’ barren? Did ye ask her to marry ye?” Thomas urged Rowan to continue with what happened after he had learned the truth behind Arline’s marriages.

“I didna get a chance! I was so happy, standin’ there like an eejit, so surprised I was. Ye couldna have wiped the smile from me face with an anvil.”

Thomas slapped his forehead with his palm and shook his head at his friend. “Ye were smilin’?”

“Aye,” Rowan answered, unclear why that made any difference. He’d been so happy, truly elated to know he could ask her to marry him without worrying over losing his chiefdom or Lily’s birthright.

Thomas let out an exasperated sigh. “Ye fool! The lass just shared the secrets of her life, her marriages, and ye smiled at her?”

Rowan couldn’t understand the significance for several long moments. When he finally gained clarity, he felt could feel nothing but relief. He hadn’t done anything unforgivable. And once he explained to Arline what he had been thinking, he knew she would forgive him.

“I’m a complete eejit!” he sighed. “An ass and an eejit!”

“Don’t forget loud.”

Arline’s weak and scratchy voice made the heads of both men spin in her direction.

She hadn’t heard the entire conversation, only the part where Rowan admitted to being the eejit she knew him to sometimes be. Her mouth was horribly dry, her tongue felt thick, as though it had grown too large for her mouth. She ran her tongue over her teeth and tried to swallow. It felt like she was swallowing a bucketful of sand.

Her brain pounded furiously against her skull and her shoulder felt like it was on fire. She had no idea where she was or what had caused her to feel like she’d been run over by a team of horses and a wagon.

“Water,” she scratched out. For the life of her, she could not open her eyes, her lids felt as heavy as lead.

Rowan jumped to his feet, relieved to hear her voice, even if it was weak and scratchy. He poured water from the pitcher into a small bowl. He tried to conceal his utter joy and excitement, lest she open her eyes and see a smile on his face. He did not want to start their argument anew.

His hands trembled as he held the bowl to her lips. She took small sips at first, just enough to wet her mouth and throat. It hurt to swallow or move or think, let alone speak. She decided it best not to do anything but breathe.

She had no memory of how she came to feel so ill or in so much pain. The last thing she remembered was standing in her dressing room and being consumed with anger over something Rowan had either said or done. But what offense he had committed, she had no clear recollection.

After quenching her thirst she relaxed, feeling only slightly better. Her arms and legs felt insufferably heavy and she knew it would be impossible to move them, if she had the desire to make the attempt.

Though she had the sense of being asleep for an exceedingly long time, she did not possess the strength to even make the attempt to open her eyes to wake. The last thing she remembered before drifting off to sleep again was the warm sensation of Rowan’s hand wrapped around hers.

Hours passed before she stirred again. She drifted in and out of sleep throughout the evening and well past dawn. Ora continued to decrease the doses and by morn, Arline was ready to bite steel, the pain in her shoulder was so intense.

Ora explained that the pain was good for her; it let her know that she was still alive. Arline was not as thrilled to remain among the living as she could have been. Her shoulder felt like there was a large horse standing on it, grinding his hoof into her wound. Her brain continued its assault against her skull. And the one time she did try to open her eyes, the light from the one candle burning near her bed felt like the light of a thousand. It burned her eyes and caused her head to throb even more.

How she came to be lying abed in so much nauseating pain, she did not know. That fact irritated her to no end. She could not remember what had happened to her. The last memory she had before waking in such an ungodly amount of pain was standing in her dressing room. She vaguely remembered being angry at Rowan, but for what reason, she could not recall.

In her rare moments of lucidity, she could feel Rowan’s presence. Always beside her, holding her hand, and offering words of encouragement. He refused to tell her what had happened, what was wrong with her. His responses to her questions were always the same: Wheesht, lass. Ye need yer rest.

She didn’t want to wheesht or rest. She wanted her shoulder to quit burning and her head to quit pounding. And she wanted answers. Resistance was pointless as her body continued to betray her mind. She kept falling asleep

By the following afternoon, she felt less groggy and the pain in her shoulder began to diminish, though it still hurt like the devil. She was able to open her eyes without feeling like they were filled with burning embers.

Rowan sat in a chair next to her bed. She smiled at the sight of the big Highlander with his head lolling forward as he slept. From the looks of him, he hadn’t taken the time to shave in many days. His clothes were a rumpled mess as if he had slept in them more than once. Even in his current condition of disarray, he was a beautiful man.

She lay still, quietly watching him and wished she could remember what had happened and why she had been so angry with him and how she came to be in this room. Had something happened in her room? Had she been attacked there?

And why did Rowan refused to tell her what happened? It made little sense. Was he was only trying to protect her? That in and of itself was a very kind thing for him to do. However, she was not a babe, not a woman prone to histrionics. Certainly whatever had happened to cause her to be here could not be that terribly awful that he feared she would fall apart. She wished she could remember.

After a time, Rowan shifted in his seat and raised his head up. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes with his palms. It took a moment for him to realize that yes, Arline was awake and yes, she was smiling at him.

“How do ye feel, lass?” he asked. His voice was filled with worry and concern. He leaned toward her and took her hand in his.

“Better,” she answered. She wondered if he realized he was holding her hand. She also wondered how on earth, considering her current condition of ill health, could she possibly get such a fluttering in her stomach and why her pulse raced at the touch of his hand?

“Good,” he said and his shoulders relaxed ever so slightly.

Arline tilted her head slightly. “What happened? I canna remember anythin’ but bein’ mad at ye. I canna even recall why I was so mad.”

“Ye had every right to be mad at me, lass.”

She rolled her eyes. His answer explained nothing. “Why will ye no’ tell me what happened?” She was growing frustrated with him.

Rowan let out a long, slow breath. “I do no’ want ye gettin’ upset again, lass. We can talk about everythin’ once yer better.”

“I am better,” she said through gritted teeth.

Rowan chuckled and smiled warmly. “Ye are? Then let’s say ye get out of bed and take a walk with me.”

“Why must men be so frustrating?” she muttered.

“We canna help it, lass.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “We oft turn to fools when we’re around beautiful women.”

Certainly he was not referring to her. The arch of her eyebrow told him as much.

“Och!” he chuckled again, softly, and gave her hand another squeeze. “Aye, ’tis ye that I’m referring to.”

Certain that she must be dreaming, she pinched the side of her thigh. It hurt, but she decided it was possible that she was hallucinating. Who knew what was in that horrible potion Ora had given her earlier. And even if she were completely lucid, she held no proof that his compliment was nothing more than his kind attempt to make her feel better. Either way, his comment proved nothing and still did not answer her question.

If Rowan wasn’t going to tell her the truth behind her injury then Ora certainly would. Arline knew she had to get Rowan out of the room long enough for her to talk to Ora. Even in her current condition, she was not above a bit of duplicity in order to gain the information she sought.

“Ye look as though ye’ve not slept well, Rowan.”

“I haven’t.” In truth, he had not left her side for more than a few moments in the past days.

“I do no’ understand why ye haven’t. Ye should go climb into yer bed and rest. Mayhap take a nice hot bath and a blade to yer beard.”

“I canna do that,” he smiled at her.

He was being silly and she told him exactly that. “I do no’ understand why yer here, why ye’ve no’ slept or shaved, and why ye canna bathe or sleep, Rowan.” A huge part of her wished his refusal to leave her side was because he had some feelings for her other than those derived from her position as his daughter’s governess. ’Twas wishful thinking, she knew that, but still, she could not stop herself from feeling the way she felt.

She took note of the way his eyes twinkled in the candle light, the way the collar of his tunic moved with each beat of his heart, and the way he held on to her hand. Odd, quite odd.

“I would no’ and will no’ leave yer side until I ken that ye are on yer way to being fully recovered,” he said in a low, soft voice. “I could bathe, shave, and climb into me bed, but I think ye’d beat me over the head with the candlestick if I did.”

“What on earth are you goin’ on about? I be quite certain I’d no beat ye over the head with a candlestick just fer bathin’ or going to bed!” Mayhap he, too, had been injured and had suffered a grave injury to his brain.

Another chuckle, a wee heartier this time. “Are ye certain of that?”

She let out an exasperated sigh. The man had lost his mind. “Of course I be certain! Yer makin’ no sense, Rowan Graham. Did you suffer a head injury? Or did ye by chance drink some of that awful potion of Ora’s?”

He could not help but laugh at her. He hoped she would not take his laughter as an insult. Considering what had happened the last time he smiled like an ignorant fool, he quickly explained why he found her statement so humorous. “Lass, ye be in me room. Ye be in me bed.”

Her brows drew inward. His room? His bed? She had only been in his room once when she brought Lily to him. She’d been so focused on him at that time that she hadn’t paid any particular attention to his room, his furniture or anything else for that matter. Her focus had been solely on the man himself.

“Aye,” he said with a nod of his head when he saw the expression on her face. “Me room. Me bed.”

“But why am I here?” she asked. And not in me own room?

He stopped laughing and the smile left his face. His expression turned serious. She couldn’t be certain, but she thought he looked a bit fearful and embarrassed.

“Well?” she asked. “Or is that another question ye’ll no’ answer until yer damned good and ready, like what happened to me?”

Her original thought had been to convince him to leave her be long enough to speak with Ora. Now she had more questions. Somehow she doubted Ora would be able to answer most of them. She was as confused over what he had said as what he had not.

Rowan cleared his throat and shifted in his chair. His jaw muscles tensed and Arline could sense that he was mulling over her question.

“Truly, Rowan, ye are a perplexing man! I do no’ understand why ye canna tell me the truth. What happened to me? Why am I no’ in me own room?” She shook her head and began to grow weary of his silence. She reasoned that he was not going to be forthcoming with the information she sought.

Rowan remained mute, as did Arline. The only sound breaking through their muteness was the soft crackle of embers coming from the fireplace.

 Rowan let out a short sigh before leaning in closer to Arline. “Ye became angry with me because I acted like an eejit,” he explained in a low tone. “I smiled.”

He had gone mad, she no longer held any doubt. “Ye’ve gone mad,” she said with disbelief. “Why would I get angry because ye smiled?” She could not believe him. If anything, his smile always left her feeling happy, confused, and excited.

“I fear I smiled at a most inappropriate time, Arline. I smiled because I was verra happy with something ye had just shared with me. Something that was verra difficult fer ye to share. Ye mistook me joy as me bein’ an ass. Ye even told me to go to hell.”

He looked genuinely miserable. Arline tried to remember what they had discussed that day, of what she had told him, but drew a complete blank. There were countless things she could have told him that would have been difficult for her to discuss.

“I be sorry, Rowan,” she told him. “But I canna remember.” She grew increasingly uneasy as well as concerned for Rowan. His expression was pained, as if he were dreading telling her any of it.

“Ora says that when someone suffers a severe injury, such as what ye suffered, their mind blocks out all memory of the event. Some people have been known to loose not just hours, but days. She thinks it’s the mind’s way of protecting a person, that the memory might be too horrible and painful.” He patted the back of her hand. “I fear I do no’ want to upset ye further, lass. But I also fear that if I am no’ completely honest with ye, ye’ll resent me all the rest of yer days.”

Arline thought long and hard, all the while her fear and unease increased. Though she worried over what he might tell her, she worried more that the black patches of her memory would drive her mad. “I promise ye Rowan, that I’ll no’ resent ye. Of that, I can swear. I may become upset, but I have to ken what happened.”

She wanted to tell him that as long as he was with her she felt she could face any problem or difficulty. She had grown to value and treasure their friendship. Even if she had been angry with him, she knew, deep down, she could forgive him nearly anything.

“We had been talkin’ of first kisses. Young Robert had just kissed Lily, do ye remember?”

Her stomach tightened ever so slightly. A faint memory, as faint as a whisper, tickled at the back of her mind. First kisses. She vaguely remembered Rowan asking about her first kiss. The nonexistent one.

“Ye told me about yer marriages. All of yer marriages, and the lack of intimacy in them.” He spoke in a low, calm tone, giving her little bits of information at a time so as to not upset her too quickly. Her face paled visibly before turning a deep shade of red. Normally, that would have made him smile, but he could find no humor in her discomfit this day.

“Ye see, lass,” he paused, searching for the most intelligent way to explain the rest of it to her. There was probably no way of telling her what was in his heart without rambling on like a fool. He took a deep breath and began again. “Ye see, lass, I have grown to care a great deal about ye. But, there was a question as to yer,” he searched for any word he could find that didn’t sound cold or harsh. “Yer fertility.”

“My what?” she asked, her voice filled with confusion and shock.

He took a quick breath in and let it out through his nostrils. “There were some who were concerned that ye were barren. When I learned that ye were still pure, well, it filled me heart with joy!”

Mad, mad, mad. The man had lost his mind. She lay there in confused and stunned silence. Hopefully Ora would return soon. Arline could somehow send a signal to her that Rowan was completely insane and needed help.

Rowan watched as she sank back into the bed, looking as though she were trying to hide from him. He knew he wasn’t making much sense by beating around the bush.

“I wanted to ask fer yer hand but I couldna ask fer it if ye were barren.” His words spilled forth in an almost indiscernible manner. “The clan council would no’ have blessed our marriage. I would have had to give up Lily’s birthright and I couldna do that to her. I was willin’ to live the rest of me life alone, without ye, to save me daughter’s future -- and yers! I couldna ask ye to marry me and no’ be able to provide fer ye. I was a coward, Arline, a complete and utter coward and an eejit.”

Arline froze. She could only make out half of what he was saying. And that half scared her witless.

“But when ye told me finally of yer marriages and the fact that there be no way of knowing if ye were barren or no’, well, I couldna help meself! I was so overcome with joy, with knowin’ then that I could marry ye, that I couldna speak, I could barely think. All I could do was smile. Ye took that smile as an insult. I could see it in yer eyes, the hurt and the pain. But ye told me to go to hell and at the time, I didna ken why. Ye ran out of the room, out of the keep, and tried to run away.”

Flashes of blurred and fuzzy images popped up in the recesses of her mind. She could remember feeling cold, afraid, angry, and hurt, but it was all a jumbled mess.

“I couldna get to ye in time, ye ken. I tried, Arline, I tried so hard to get to ye. Ye climbed over the wall and before I could stop ye, our men on the wall saw riders approachin’. It all happened so fast. They shot at ye, their arrows flyin’ and landin’ all around ye. Ye were trying to get back to the keep, when ye realized what was happenin’.”

He hung his head in shame. “’Twas me fault, ye ken. I couldna get to ye in time. The last arrow hit ye in the back and went all the way through yer shoulder. I thought ye were dead, Arline, and it nearly killed me.”

She didn’t know which part of his story shocked her more. The fact that he wanted to marry her or the fact that he would have mourned her loss. Being shot seemed miniscule by comparison.

Someone on this earth wanted to marry her. He wanted to marry her. Voluntarily, with no bartering or threats. She was too flabbergasted to cry or speak just yet. She lay as still as a stone, contemplating all that he had just told her.

His guilt was real, she could tell by the way he hung his head, ashamed to look at her. That he should feel guilty when it was her own stubbornness that had gotten her shot said much. It didn’t matter to him how she came to be in danger. What mattered to him was that he hadn’t been there to stop her from being hurt.

It bewildered her that he wanted to marry her. Either she was far more naïve than she ever considered herself to be or she was a fool. Either way, not once had she ever had even an inkling that he cared for her as anything other than Lily’s governess. At most, she thought he considered her a friend.

She finally found her voice, trembling and weak. “No one’s ever wanted to marry me on purpose before.”

Slowly, he raised his head and looked into her eyes. “I do.”

“But why?” she asked, still unable to grasp the idea of Rowan possessing a desire to marry her. “Me da hasn’t bargained for me, I have no dowry to speak of. I canna bring anything important to ye, Rowan.”

His lips curved into a warm smile. “Ye bring yerself, lass, and that is all I need. I do no’ need money or land or any other inducement. ’Tis ye I want and nothin’ more.”

How many nights had she lain awake longing to hear someone say those words? How many hours had been given to daydreams of Rowan Graham professing to love and want her? And now, the moment was here, and had she not been grievously injured, she would have fled from the room in fear. Her hands trembled, her mouth went dry, and those damnable fish swimming in her belly had returned once again.

“Ye canna be serious,” she said quietly. She found it difficult to look into his eyes, so filled with adoration and desire that her legs trembled. ’Twas a good thing she was lying down for had she been standing, she most certainly would have fallen over.

“I am, Arline. Verra serious.”

“But ye’ve never done anythin’ that would lead me to believe ye cared for me like, like that!

He chuckled and leaned in close, so close that she could scarcely breathe. “I wanted to, many times.”

The way he said wanted, brought a tickling sensation to her stomach. It made her heart flutter. She thought it remarkable that the more he spoke, the less her shoulder ached. But what exactly had he wanted to do? She grew a spine and asked. “What did ye want to do?”

His smile broadened to the point that he flashed those brilliant white teeth. A twinkle gleamed in his eyes. “I wanted to tell ye how I felt. And I wanted to kiss ye. I still want verra much to kiss ye, Arline.”

Her eyes grew as wide and as round as wagon wheels as he leaned in even closer. “Nay!” she exclaimed loudly as she lifted the hand of her good arm and pushed him away.

“Nay?” He was unmistakably taken aback.

She shook her head at him. “Nay! This is no’ how I imagined me first kiss to be!” she told him firmly. “Yer supposed to kiss me under the stars or, or, by the loch, or in an alcove! Not now, when I’ve been abed for days, and me hair is dirty and no’ combed! I’m no’ even dressed! And I’ve a--”

He stopped her from saying anything else with a kiss. A sweet, tender, gentle kiss. Once he had figured out she did no’ protest the fact that he wanted to kiss her and that her only complaint was the timing and location, he could not hold back.

The kiss was as he had imagined it would be. Wondrous, exciting, and magnificent. Her lips felt soft against his. He took delight in her sharp intake of air when his lips first touched hers.

He went in again, like a man diving into warm, inviting waters. He felt her trembling fingers clutch his hand. She hadn’t moved, hadn’t tried to return the kiss at first. But soon, she leaned in, her lips pleading for more as she returned his kiss. Her innocence shone through in how she responded, greedily yet hesitantly.

Were she not injured, he would have climbed into the bed with her to begin a kiss that would last for days. His groin as well as his heart protested when he broke away.

He rested his forehead against hers as he did his best to steady his labored breathing. He caressed her cheek with the backs of his fingers. His lips felt hot and burned for more.

“Yer kisses are corruptible!” she breathed out. Her entire body seemed to be one big trembling puddle of mush. It was everything she had ever dreamed it would be but decidedly different. It was real. Not something her heart or her creative imagination had designed. It was sweet, tender and gentle, yet filled with a level of passion she did not think possible. She was too shocked with her own response to his kiss to tell him how it made her feel.

He pulled away to get a better look at her. Her skin was a brilliant shade of red. Those green eyes sparkled in the candlelight. She looked as amazed as she did surprised.

“Corruptible?” he asked, chuckling at her description. “I’ve kissed many a lass in my day, and no’ one of them ever described me kisses as corruptible.”

She remained quiet, trying to will away the lustful feelings his kiss had brought surging through her body. His kisses were not going to be easy to resist. In the back of her mind, she saw Minnie shaking her head and clucking her tongue, disgusted at how her former charge had just behaved. Not at all ladylike.

“Did ye no’ enjoy the kiss, lass?” he asked in a deep, low, seductive tone.

“That be the problem!” She swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “Ye canna marry me, Rowan. I’d be no good fer ye.”

Puzzled, he raised a brow. “No good fer me? I do no’ understand.” No matter what reasons she might come up with, he’d find a way to refute them all. He was going to marry her.

Her eyes began to water as she thought about how the kiss had made her feel. Alive, excited, amazed, lustful; all the things a good, decent lady was not supposed to feel. Throwing all caution to the wind, she knew she must be honest with him. “Ye make me feel things a lady isna supposed to feel, Rowan! I’m a wanton! A harlot! Ye need a good, decent woman who’ll not become brazen and excited at yer touch! A woman who can keep her wits about her and no’ one who wishes fer more of yer kisses!”

He had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing. He had no goodly idea where she got hold of the notion that he’d not want her to be affected by his kiss or his touch. The woman was the furthest thing from a harlot that one would get. She was damned near a nun!

“Ye’ll have to explain to me, lass, how ye came to believe I’d no’ want ye to enjoy me kisses.” He hid his mirth well.

She cleared her throat and wiped away a tear. She could not look him straight on for fear he’d see how badly she wanted another kiss from him. She damned her betraying body to the devil, took a deep breath and tried to explain it as best she could.

“Though I’ve no’ ever experienced fer meself what goes on between a man and a woman, I ken how its done. I fear I’ll no’ be able to do me duty to ye when ye kiss me like that.”

“Do yer duty?” He was thoroughly intrigued.

“Aye, me duty. Me maid, Minnie, she came to take care of me after me mum died. She explained it all to me when I married Carlich, ye ken. A good wife, she lies still and allows her husband to do what he must or what he wants so that she can get with child. She must allow him to come to her once a week, as is his right. A decent wife, a true lady, she finds no enjoyment in the act. Only harlots, whores and wantons do! And I fear I’m one of them, fer I truly did enjoy yer kiss! Do ye no’ see? I canna be a good, decent wife to ye if I’m all,” she fought hard to find the correct word to describe how he made her feel. “Excited! Lustful! Sinful!”

He almost bit his tongue in half to keep from laughing at her innocence and misguided notions. He rubbed a hand over his forehead, more to hide the amusement he found in her statement than to relieve an achy head.

“I fear yer Ninny--”

“Minnie,” she corrected him.

“Yer Minnie was wrong,” he told her.

She finally raised her head to look at him. “Wrong?”

“Aye,” he said with a nod. “Was yer Minnie ever married? Did she have any experience with men?”

“Aye! She was married fer a time when she was young. The poor thing, her husband died only after a year or so of bein’ married. He’d left their cottage one morn, to go huntin’ and he never returned. She was certain he was set upon and killed by reivers. Minnie searched and searched fer him, fer weeks, but could no’ find him. She thought mayhap wolves got him or the reivers took his body away.”

Rowan could feel the sadness Arline felt for her maid, Minnie. He trod upon the subject with great care and thoughtfulness. “And ’twas Minnie who said good lasses are no’ supposed to like kisses or joinin’ with their husbands?”

Arline sniffed and nodded. “So, ye see, ye canna marry me. Ye need a good woman, Rowan. One who can lay still and no’ act like a wanton woman whenever ye touch her. Minnie would be horrified if she knew I was like this! All those years we spent together, with her teachin’ me how to be a proper lady are but a waste. I’m sorry, Rowan.”

He shook his head, smiled and moved to sit on the edge of the bed. He took her hands in his and tried to be as tactful and thoughtful as he could be. “Arline, no’ all men want their wives to just do their duty.” He took her chin and lifted her head gently so that he could look into her eyes. “I fear I would be terribly wounded and hurt if I kissed ye and ye did no’ enjoy it. A wife should find pleasure with her husband, with his kisses and all they do together.” He wouldn’t share with her his opinions on Minnie’s missing husband. The man probably left because she’d been a cold and unloving wife.

Disbelief and surprise filled her bright green eyes. “But, Minnie said,”

He stopped her with another soft, tender kiss. “I do no’ care what Minnie told ye. I do no’ ever want ye to think ye canna say or do whatever ye wish, when it comes to things of a more intimate nature.”

“So it’s a harlot ye want fer a wife?” she asked.

“Nay,” he said, kissing her again. “I want an honest and forthright wife. One who’s no’ afraid to say what is on her mind.”

If she told him everything that was on her mind he would think her a harlot! She supposed being silently honest would cause no harm, that is, if he truly did want to marry her. He hadn’t actually asked her yet, and she was afraid to mention it.

“Ye must think me a cad, to be kissin’ ye while yer abed, wounded, and no’ fully recovered.”

Truly, he could kiss her any time the mood struck him as far as she was concerned. His kisses did in fact make her feel better. Mayhap if he continued on with them, she’d be able to climb mountains by morning time. “Nay,” she murmured. “I do no’ think ill of ye.”

“I should leave ye to rest,” he said as he left the bed and stood to his full height.

“Please, do no’ go just yet,” she asked him, hoping she did not sound as needy as she felt.

He nodded and took his place in the chair. That was much too far away for her liking, but she kept the thought inside, along with a hundred other questions she wanted desperately to ask.

Rowan studied her for a time. Even in her current state, with her mussed hair, the large bandage on her shoulder, and pale skin, he found her breathtakingly beautiful. She’d make a very fine wife, a good companion, and a wonderful mother, not just to Lily, but to all the children he hoped they’d be blessed with.

He wanted to make her his wife, and soon. There were things that must be done in order for that to happen. He wondered how much time she’d need to heal before she’d be healthy enough for a wedding.

“We should post the banns,” he said happily.

“Banns?” she asked. He hadn’t officially asked her if she would in fact wish to be his wife.

“Aye,” he said. “I want to marry ye proper. Post the banns, have a grand weddin’, a feast, all of it!” He crossed a leg over one knee and began to think out loud. “I need first to let the council ken that ye’ve agreed. Then I must have Mrs. Fitz prepare a grand menu for the weddin’ feast. And ye’ll need a dress. I’ll need to invite the MacDougalls, the McDunnahs, the McKees--”

Arline cleared her throat to gain his attention. When she had it, she lifted her chin and looked him directly in the eye. “I’ve no’ agreed.”

She watched as the color drained from his face.

“Because ye haven’t asked me! Ye only said ye’d planned to ask. But ye haven’t.”

His color slowly returned as he ran over all they had said to one another. She was correct. He hadn’t asked. Hadn’t shared with her what was in his heart.

He rose from his chair and knelt beside the bed and took her hands in his. “Arline, will ye do me the honor of becomin’ me wife?”

She scrunched her face and looked up at the ceiling as if she were considering the question. After a moment or two, she looked at him and smiled. “Aye, I will,” she said softly. “On one condition.”

His brows turned inward. “Condition?”

“Aye,” she said. “If there is to be a marriage contract, there’ll be nothin’ in it about annulments!”

He threw his head back and laughed. “Aye, I can agree to that, as long as ye agree ye’ll never look at kissin’ me or joinin’ with me as yer duty.”

“Agreed,” she said with a smile. “We should shake on it,” she said as she offered her hand.

That seductive smile of his returned. He took her face in both hands, caressed her cheeks with his thumbs and sighed. “Let’s say we seal it with a kiss instead?”

Arline rubbed her cheek against his palm and closed her eyes. Aye, she may have dreamt of this moment, may even have prayed for it. But now that it was here, really truly happening, her heart seemed to swell and threatened to burst from her chest.

Someone wanted to marry her. Not just any someone. Rowan Graham, decidedly the most beautiful man she had ever known, wanted to marry her. And apparently, he enjoyed her kisses!

Twenty-Six

Rowan and Arline spent the better part of the next hour making plans for their wedding. And in between, they shared kisses that became increasingly more passionate.

“Yer goin’ to be the death of me, lass,” he scratched out after one particularly intense kiss. His groin ached and screamed for attention. He’d have to bath in the loch before the night was over.

“I vex ye?” she asked in a worried tone.

“Nay! I mean to say that I canna wait fer ye to be me wife.” He hoped he would not have to explain to her the physical affect she had on his person.

“Oh,” she said quietly.

The way her lips formed when she spoke made his eye twitch. It was downright seductive, but she was entirely unaware.

“Do ye think we could post the banns fer three weeks?” he asked, trying to take his mind off the kisses they’d been sharing.

“Three weeks?” She sounded dismayed. “Nay! I canna plan a weddin’ in just three weeks!” She wanted to be fully and completely recovered from her injury so that she could enjoy every moment of their wedding night.

Rowan thought on it for a time. He did not want to wait until morning, let alone any longer than necessary. A memory popped up and he decided to use it to his advantage. “What if yer da has learned of the annulment? He may try to marry ye off again. And what if he marries ye by proxy a second time?”

She turned six different shades of white and gray in a matter of moments. Clearly, the thought of her father arranging another marriage or worse yet, marrying her without her consent via proxy, made her ill. “Nay,” she sputtered. “I canna do that again!” Who knew who her father might choose this time. He’d marry her to the devil himself if he thought it would increase his purses.

No matter what happened she would marry Rowan in three weeks. She’d marry him this night if she thought he’d agree to it.

“Three weeks shall work,” she told him determinedly as she tossed the blankets away. “Help me to me feet!” She’d walk through fire if she had to.

Rowan laughed at her determination. He replaced the blankets and urged her to lie back. “Ye will no’ have to do a thing, Arline. Ye are nowhere near fully recovered. I’ll no have ye takin’ the risk of getting ill or undoing all of Ora’s fine work. Ye shall stay abed and let me do this.”

He held up his hand when she started to protest. “Nay! I promise, I’ll no make a decision without ye, but I’ll no allow ye to do anythin’. Please, lass, promise me ye’ll stay abed and allow me to do this. I’ll ask Selina to help if it will make ye feel better.”

She breathed a sigh of relief when he offered to enlist Selina’s help. Selina was a sweet young woman and very astute. “Aye, if ye promise ye’ll let me help make the decisions and take Selina’s help, then aye, I’ll agree to stay abed.”

“Good,” he said. “Now, ’tis gettin’ late. Ora should be here soon to tend to ye. I must leave ye now, to go tell the council of our plans.”

Arline agreed, though the thought of him leaving left her feeling lonely. “Ye’ll return soon?” she asked, stifling a yawn.

Rowan stood, bent over and gave her a chaste kiss on her forehead. “I do so promise. I also promise to shave me beard and take a much needed bath.”

Arline rather liked the beard. It gave him an even more seductive and mysterious air. It was soft, too, and she liked the way it tickled when he touched his cheek to hers. “Ye needn’t hurry to shave it, Rowan.”

He offered her a warm smile as he rubbed his hand along it. “Ye like it, do ye?”

“’Tis yer face. Ye must do what ye like. But if yer askin’ me opinion, then aye, I do like the beard.”

Rowan kissed her again, made another promise to return as soon as he was able. Arline promised to rest and sleep.

Were she able, she would have danced around the room after Rowan closed the door. It seemed her life was beginning to take a marked turn for the better. Very soon, she would be Rowan’s wife. They would start a life together, have children and build a legacy.

He hadn’t come out directly and professed his love for her. She reasoned that mayhap he was not quite ready to make such a declaration. She knew that it was difficult for some men to speak from the heart, for fear of sounding weak or less than a man. Arline did not care if he said the words, it was enough that he showed her how he felt. Their entire lives lay stretched before them. There would be plenty of time for I love ye’s later on. Twenty-Six

Aside from the sea opening and swallowing Scotland whole, nothing could stop the news of Rowan Graham’s impending nuptials from spreading across the country. In some instances, the news reached those invited to attend the wedding before the invitation itself had arrived.

Word reached Lady Beatrice but four short days after the formal announcement had been made. Rowan had declared to the world that he would be marrying Lady Arline.

Beatrice would have heard it much sooner were it not for the blasted snow. She’d never been fond of winter to begin with. Now, having seen how it had delayed her spies, she hated it even more. Her hatred of winter dimmed in comparison to the all consuming hatred she felt toward Lady Arline.

She’d lost precious time to plot. And timing in these cases was everything. Had she received the news sooner she would have had more time to devise a better plan to stop Rowan from marrying Lady Arline.

Beatrice would simply have to make do. With Joan’s help and the aid of a few men whose fealty she had purchased, Beatrice put into place a plan that would, without a shadow of a doubt, keep Rowan from marrying Arline. Arline’s life would unfortunately be spared, there was no way around that, no matter how she wished she could watch the life drain from the insipid redhead’s body.

With the wedding just days away, Beatrice left the comfort of her home in Edinburgh, along with a small contingent of armed men and her maid, Joan. With any luck, they would arrive on Graham lands with plenty of time to spare.

Beatrice would accept nothing less than total success. With controlled rage, she rode west, tweaking and improving her plan along the way.

Nothing, but nothing would stand in her way.

Rowan would not be marrying Arline.

Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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