Deep in thought, Raeb wasn’t certain what Dougal had been saying, but the man didn’t normally stop speaking in mid-sentence.
Evidently Raeb’s failure to reply went unnoticed, for Dougal stood, took a step back from the table, and stared—openmouthed—at something on the other side of the room. Then the silence filling the now crowded main hall struck Raeb. Even the deepest night was never this quiet.
“What is it?” He shifted to peer around Dougal. Raeb’s jaw dropped.
How had she escaped his room?
Dressed in pale green samite, Jessamyn Du Grace glided into the hall. Her carriage was proud and tall, and every stride bespoke confidence in her own worth. On both right and left, she graced his clansmen and women with a sweet expression and a few words, which he couldn’t hear. Though none he could see spoke in response, men and women alike instinctively made way for her. She had no need to pick her way between the crowded benches.
Raeb understood. He’d seen her disembark and treat a horse with unusual concern and kindness for an English noblewoman. He had witnessed her thoughtful consideration for a servant. He’d seen the lady soaking wet and shivering, and somehow no less attractive. He’d witnessed her screeching invectives and sworn retribution. Now the irate passion of the early afternoon was gone and in its place was a kindly interest so alluring it tempted him to drop his cold reception.
She was either a great actress or less than sane to be able to show two such different sides. Clearly she was not to be trusted. Despite their obedience to his edict to shun Lady Du Grace, he could see his clansmen’s fascination with her. They had yet to learn how false the woman was.
All eyes on her, she approached the high table. As she neared the dais, he stood, and the entire hall of folk followed his example. He offered his hand and seated her in the empty chair at his side. He couldn’t tear his gaze away. Silence and a sense of wonder ruled the room where he should have led.
She looked out at the tables below the salt then turned her head in a slow survey of the hall until her gaze met his.
He fell, drowning in green pools.
Her lips moved.
The shape fascinated him. Their deep rose color and plump texture made his fingers itch to stroke them, to hold her downy cheeks, and plunder the sweetness he knew could be his.
Her lips moved again. “When will the meal be served?”
He stared on.
“Uh, now. I believe,” Dougal said from Raeb’s other side.
Jessamyn bent a look of genuine pleasure on Dougal.
Raeb wanted to push his captain from the dais. No man should answer her questions and thus usurp my authority in front of the clan.
He raised his arm, signaling to bring the trenchers. His gesture broke whatever enchantment held his clan silent, and noise once more filled the room. Servants were scarce in Dungarob keep and limited mostly to kitchen and stable hands. Thus, all the men and women of the clan pitched in to get the meal served. His betrothed’s face was serene, but her fingers tapped a rapid dance against the tabletop. Relief spread through him like a slow breath. Those fingers put the lie to her sweet serenity. There was the passionate woman he knew her to be, not the smiling calm she showed to his people. What could he do to expose that eager energy, and mayhap get his people to see her as a harpy instead of an angel?
“Tell me who released you from your prison, so I may punish them.”
“Since you intend punishment, I’ll not betray a kindness.”
Who would have expected her to show loyalty to any MacKai or recognize the kindness of a Scot? He clenched his teeth. “Would you tell me if I swore no to do more than scold?”
She shook her head. “Scolding is not warranted. The wo ... person sought only to be helpful.”
He narrowed his gaze. “If ’twas a woman then ’twas one of my sisters. I’ll put them all on bread and water until the guilty one confesses.” He’d never do so—he knew his sisters would find a way around such a ridiculous threat.
To emphasize his words and help Jessamyn believe he meant them, however, he placed his hand heavily over hers. Beneath his touch her wrist jerked, and her fingers stilled. As his rough palm rested atop her silken skin, sensation jolted up his arm. If he didn’t do something quickly, he’d sink under her spell again.
She glared at him and slipped her hand from beneath his. “You would never do that to your sisters. You love them too much.”
She could only know that if she’d spent time with his siblings. “Hah. So it was one of my interfering sisters. Let’s see if I can deduce which one. Maeve was busy tending to Rhuad MacFearann.”
“I saw the fight from the chamber window,” Jessamyn remarked.
Was she trying to distract him?
“Your sister Neilina fares well,” the lady continued. “How is the poor man she defended?”
“He’s well enough.” Raeb studied her. “How did you know his defender was my sister Neilina?”
“I ... I must have heard her name as I entered the hall just now. Though most of your people were silent and stared. Really, I do not understand the manners here. Are all Scots so rude or just the MacKai clan?”
“You make a good attempt to divert my attention, but I know better. ’Twas Artis who released you.”
“You cannot possibly know that.”
“Aye, I can. When I came to the table, Dougal related that Artis wanted him to tell me Neilina was resting and well. Since Maeve, who is our healer, had no time to see to Neilina, ’twould be like Artis to seek help from another quarter. Especially if she thought she could get away with releasing you for that reason.”
Jessamyn straightened and her gaze hardened. “Why would your sister need a reason other than common courtesy to release me from an unwarranted imprisonment?”
He returned her gaze in equal measure. “Because I locked you in there and gave no permission for your release.”
“’Tis a blessing then that your sister considers her other sibling’s care more important than the need for permission.”
“No when Artis could have tended Neilina herself. She cares for all the injured creatures at Dungarob and is near as good a healer as Maeve.”
“Aye, that gives you pause, does it no? My youngest sister is up to something. When she gets a notion into her head, she doesna give it up and rarely shares her thoughts until ’tis too late to stop her.”
“So you will not punish her?”
“’Twould be no point. She’d think naught of any punishment I would be willing to impose. You, however, will return to my chamber immediately after supper.”
Jessamyn stiffened. “I’ll not surrender my virtue without marriage.”
He captured her gaze. “None would object; we are betrothed. What matter if we anticipate the vows by a month or two?” He’d no intention of taking her virtue now or at any other time. Oh, the idea was appealing, but the consequences were not desirable. However, he wanted to see her reaction.
“It matters a great deal to me, and I object most strongly.”
She was blushing. Was it anger, embarrassment, or desire that caused the delicate pink in her cheeks?
He shrugged. “’Tis of no import to me. I’ll send that screeching maid of yours to you tonight, and you may bar the door from inside, if you fear for your honor.”
“I would defend my virtue to the death.”
“’Tis sure I am you would, but ’twill no be necessary. If we are to wed, I want you to know me well enough to come willing to my bed.”
She opened her mouth then closed it, clearly nonplused.
“To that end,” he continued. “I’ve been thinking we should put off our vows until midsummer.” If his intent was to cause her to break the betrothal, he’d best start as he meant to go on. Life with seven sisters had taught him that nothing upset a woman as much as having her plans rearranged.
Jessamyn’s head jerked round, her mouth open on a silent “o.”
So I’ve surprised her. Good, but why is she no angry?
Then the blush fading from her cheeks and a beatific smile were all that remained of the emotions she’d revealed. Even that disappeared as he watched.
She shrugged and faced forward. “If it pleases you.”
“’Twill give us time to get to know each other better, and for you to become familiar with the customs of Clan MacKai.”
“I am happy to know the MacKai clan and learn its customs better. However, since ours is an arranged match, I doubt that knowing you better at this point will be important.” She spoke with an indifferent monotone then bit her lip in an unconscious gesture of nerves.
Raeb frowned inwardly. This was not proceeding as he wished. He wanted her irate and storming for all to see. He must keep the upper hand and not forget the true purpose of this sham betrothal.
“Surely you wish to get along with your husband? Knowing and honoring me can only increase my clan’s respect and affection for you.”
The trenchers finally arrived.
As if his words meant nothing deserving response, she bent her head and opened the velvet pouch tied to her belt.
Idly, Raeb pulled off a piece of bread, chewing slowly as he watched her.
She withdrew a palm-length decorated box and set it on the table beside her plate. Releasing the delicately wrought latch, she revealed a silver stick with one end split into two long, sharp points.
“What is that?”
She lifted her head and stared at him, her mouth curving into a deeper smile. “’Tis a fork.” She lifted the shining metal into her hand and offered it to him.
His brows drew together, and he gently pushed her hand away. “A fork. I heard of such from crusaders I met while fostering. Most said it was a Saracen device meant for weaklings and ladies.”
“Hmm, you imply that ladies are weak, Baron.” She gripped the fork, turning the points downward, then speared a piece of meat.
He bent to his meal, speaking in between bites. “Verily, no all women are weak. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Boudicca, and Queen Scathach come to mind, but they were exceptional.”
“I’ve never heard of Queen Scathach. However, I’ll concede that she, like the others, was exceptional in many ways. Because they are, they also show what every woman is capable of given need or opportunity.”
“Yet none of those legendary women was especially interested in her husband. I gather you intend to emulate their disinterest?” His voice went soft.
Around them his men and sisters stilled in anticipation of an explosion. Would she notice?
Lady Du Grace shrugged and sipped her mead.
“Answer my question, please.”
“I’ve not yet decided.”
When she moved to spear another bite, he took her hand, halting her movement and forcing her to look at him. “Decide now.”
Surely that demand would fire her temper, burn her calm to ash, and break the spell she’d cast over his clan.
She turned to face him and raised an imperious brow, reminding him forcibly of her royal godparent.
“In my experience, excessive familiarity with one’s spouse is not necessary to command respect from others. I will be your wife. I have no special need to understand you in order to support your leadership of your clan or your position as baron.” She retrieved her hand, giving a dismissive wave then addressing her meal.
Raeb ground his teeth. Her casual indifference bordered on rudeness—though he admitted he had given her reason. But she behaved so only to him. Thus far none in his clan had spoken to her, but their obvious interest did not argue well for their continued cooperation. She was trying to win them over, and doing a fair job. He kenned not what game she played, but he would find out. Meanwhile he would bedevil her with good manners—he could do that and still be cold. ’Twould keep her off balance, mayhap enough to lose her temper. He wanted his people to see her serene demeanor for the lie it was.
Like a good host he held forth with a stream of information about Dungarob, its surroundings, and its people. She listened in silence until the meal ended. When she pushed back from the table to rise, he once more placed a hand over hers. This time her outward reaction was more placid, but her fingers trembled beneath his.
“’Tis time you met my family. You must forgive me for not introducing my sisters earlier.”
She cast her gaze upward and heaved a great sigh as if mightily put upon. “If it pleases you.”
He smiled. Let her think she has me fooled. However, to please myself, I’ll strip her bare of all pretense before I’m done with her. No Englishwoman will get the better of Raeb MacKai.
He gestured for the several females seated farther down the table to attend him. One by one they came forward to assemble before him in a line from tallest to smallest.
“My lady, you’ve already met Lady Neilina, who is still resting, so allow me to introduce my other sisters, ladies Maeve, Bridghe, Keeva, and Seona. Lady Artis should be here but has chosen no to join us, probably because she knows I am no pleased with her. I also regret I canna introduce you to Sorcha, who is nearest to me in age. She recently married and now lives as countess at Strathnaver Stronghold many leagues inland.”
He smiled. Knowing how his sisters bedeviled him, he doubted anyone could match them, and certainly not an English lady, even if Jessamyn Du Grace was not quite what he expected.
Back Cover Copy:
Sent alone to Scotland to wed a wild Scot and serve the needs of her father and her king, Lady Jessamyn intends to escape the marriage and train horses for the good sisters at a nearby nunnery. But her intended is not the wild, boorish monster she imagined - just Baron Raeb MacKai, a man struggling to provide the best for his clan. It could be surprisingly easy to surrender her heart to him, until she learns his plans involve deceiving her family and attacking the king's ship that bears her brother.
Raeb is done watching everyone he loves live in poverty and despair. His betrothal to a wealthy English heiress will solve a decade of problems, and the Scots' secret plot to keep King Edward I from getting a foothold on their rugged coastline will secure his family's future. If he must deny himself the spirited woman who would warm his bed and his heart, so be it.
Neither is willing to give an inch in this clash of loyalties, but can either defend their hearts?