Brìghde was too tired to do anything but eat and drink. The earl admonished her once again to sleep with him or sleep tied to a tree, but as she had the night before, she fell asleep before she could feel his arms around her.
It was pitch and the forest was absolutely still when she awoke to tend her needs. The earl was spooned against her back, his arm heavy in the curve of her waist. She moved slightly and his arm tightened just a bit. She did not know if he were awake or if it was a reflex. Carefully she inched out of his grasp, but as she stood, he grabbed her skirt and made her trip.
“Ooof,” she grunted.
“I told you not to run,” he growled.
She sighed. “Nature calls, I am thirsty, and I have every reason to stay with you. I did not want to wake you, particularly since your man is standing guard somewhere out there in the darkness.”
He released her slowly. “Do not bolt.” She attempted to hurry, but her body was sore and she groaned at every twitch of muscle. Still, he growled at her when she returned. “You took too long.”
“Shall I give you a detailed report?” she asked testily as she lay again on the blanket he had smoothed out for both of them, his strong chest against her back. Since he had no lust for her, she did not mind. It was no different from how her deerhound took over her bed of a night, and really, what was the earl but a human deerhound?
He made no answer but shifted to allow herself to settle so he could again drape his arm over her to make sure she did not run away.
The next time she awoke, the sun was high in the sky, the fog completely burned off. Hearing nothing, she quickly scanned the area. There was the earl’s red-and-black destrier calmly drinking from the stream. She lay back down and closed her eyes.
“I know you’re awake, my lady,” the earl said dryly from behind her. “Do not go back to sleep.”
She groaned. “Where are your men?”
“Scouting. We are out of provisions and must go into the village today, whether your people are there or not.”
“Come, ’tis time to be off.”
Brìghde got to her feet with less groaning than yesterday, but still a bit. She picked up the blanket, shook it out and folded it. “I’m hungry.”
“Sadly, the only thing I’ve to offer you is more wine.”
Her stomach rumbled. “I’ll take it!”
He laughed. “Here,” he said as he handed her the bladder, “your wine, my lady. Don’t drink too much, lest you fall off the back of the horse.”
She looked up with a smile, which she fought to keep on her face because now, in the sunlight and with the first opportunity she’d had to truly study him, she realized he was possibly the most breathtaking man she had ever met—and she had met many a breathtaking man in her travels.
Until I can force myself to bed you …
… deep and abiding aversion to brunettes …
Brìghde closed her eyes and drank deeply to disguise her thoughts. He was much taller than anyone of her acquaintance, brawnier. His hair was a blonder red in the sunlight, his growing beard bright copper. His face was sharp and lean, his nose and jaw strong. His smile was … devastating.
After everything she had heard and seen, she had dreaded mating because she knew the only man she would ever swive was Roger. Thus, it had made her absolutely ill. But with this handsome giant in front of her and Roger suddenly removed from her future, she knew exactly what she was feeling.
She would not hesitate to swive this man.
However, if she were not careful with her expressions, he would know what she thought of him and, as she had never been able to bear mockery of any sort and she could not laugh at herself, she did not want to have to bear any manner of teasing should he catch her out.
Soon enough they were on the horse and into the stream, riding silently. Brìghde had nothing to say, and she doubted the earl wanted her to make any noise anyway. The sun had traversed into the west enough to become blinding when one of the earl’s scouts appeared.
“My lady’s people are gone, my lord, back to their lands. We have secured lodgings and food for us and the horses, and found a priest.”
“We felt it best to leave that to your judgment, my lord. There are few for sale, and they are of questionable quality. Yet there is an impoverished knight seeking to sell his destrier and tack. I would have purchased it, but I did not know if my lady would be amenable to riding an hundred twenty more miles on a warhorse.”
“What say you, my lady?” the earl asked over his shoulder.
“’Tis preferable to riding on a rump or squeezed between your mailed belly and your pommel with your knees poking my ribs.”
He chuckled. “Aye, then. I shall see to it on the morrow.”
It was close to sunset when they made the road at the outskirts of the village. They gathered no attention at all, because Laight was a relatively large town and the main road went just around it. Once at a stable, a young groom met them and helped Brìghde dismount.
The earl dismounted and turned to Brìghde, who now could see that he was haggard and clearly exhausted. “I know you are hungry, as am I, so first we will—
“My lord, the priest awaits,” his man murmured.
“—go see the priest,” the earl sighed heavily.
They walked down the street to the kirk and entered its cool dimness, where the rest of the earl’s contingent were also awaiting them.
The five of them waited patiently in the pews whilst the priest finished speaking to an old woman, then sent her on her way with a smile.
“You are the two needin’ to be wed?”
As one, Brìghde and the earl said, “Aye.”
The priest’s brow rose and he looked at Brìghde. “Where is your father?”
“We don’t need him,” the earl rumbled. “We are of age, not related, and consenting.”
“Ye don’t need me fer that, then.”
“We need your register.”
“Aye, then. Your name, please?” he asked Brìghde once they reached the book.
“Lady Brìghde Fàileach, daughter of Walter Fàileach, clan chief of Fàileach. That’s B-”
Brìghde, startled, jumped at the earl’s near-bellow. “What what, my lord?”
“You are not Lady Margaret Dunham?”
“If I were,” she said testily, “I would have said Lady Margaret Dunham.”
“I heard the banns myself!” Kenard insisted.
“Aye, you did! Lady Margaret wed my brother in the ceremony just before the one you interrupted. ’Twas a double wedding. I was to wed Roger MacFhionnlaigh, thereby uniting our lands between MacFhionnlaigh and Dunham.”
His men groaned, and the earl clapped his hands to his face. He dropped his head back and began pacing.
“You snatched the wrong woman?” Brìghde asked incredulously.
“I snatched the wrong woman,” he croaked.
The priest heaved an irritated sigh. “If ye’ve no need of me services, I’ve other things to do.”
No one spoke. Brìghde was suddenly on the verge of tears, afraid that, having made such a grievous error, the earl would simply take her back. If he did, she would request he take her to her brother at Dunham. The earl had been generous thus far, and ’twas not her fault!
“How can I turn this to my advantage?” Kenard whispered at the ceiling as he paced, his hands clasped behind his neck.
“Did you need to wed Lady Margaret specifically?”
“You cannot wed she who was already wed when you arrived, and she is now my sister-in-law … ”
Kenard grasped her upper arm—hard—and dragged her out of the kirk and into the street. His men followed.
“You said you know all your neighbors to the north and south of you, save me. Do you know the Duke of Sheffield?”
“Of him, though I have never met him. My father thinks he is not of fit wit to be a duke.”
“He’s right, but that is neither here nor there. Suffice it to say Sheffield is my liege, and he has ever been envious of my friendship with Henry. The earldom of Tavendish is my neighbor to the east. The dukedom of Sheffield is my neighbor to the south and west. Sheffield was unofficially promised my speck of land before the king granted them to me.”
“If I die without a wife or issue, there is a very good chance he can get them. As long as I was on the battlefield, he was content to wait until I was killed, but I am a very hard man to kill. A year and a half ago, Henry sent me home to solidify my earldom so that I could return to the battlefield with a strong estate that could support and defend itself against a border war. It has been able to support itself for three years, but it could not defend itself nor could it withstand a siege for long. It has taken me that long to build another army after Henry took most of my force with him to France. Now, it can both defend itself and withstand a siege, so I thought I would be free to go back to France. But a month ago, I was warned that Sheffield has grown impatient with my refusal to die, and is plotting to do it himself.”
“Ohhhhhh,” Brìghde breathed. “You need a wife to assure your estate’s longevity in the case of your death.”
“Aye, that, but here is the nut of it: Sheffield is a man who, it is rumored, killed his cousin and his cousin’s legitimate heir—a babe—to gain the dukedom. The duchess also mysteriously disappeared. Since this happened thirty years and two kings ago, few people remember or care. Henry also knows of these rumors, but can do nothing. He doesn’t like Sheffield, doesn’t trust him, but Sheffield is a title that goes back centuries and thus far, Sheffield has proven his loyalty to Henry.
“If I die under suspicious circumstances, Henry will never let him have my lands. Sheffield knows this; thus, his plot to kill me without raising Henry’s suspicion will take time to implement. If I am wed to a noblewoman and I die suspiciously or not, Henry will not let him have those lands, as he will back my wife and her right to it, so killing her would be suspicious and futile. If I also have a legitimate heir, there is no point to killing me at all, as he will have to go through three people and that is nothing but suspicious when he already has a cloud hanging over him. Know this: I do not fear death. I fear for the future of my family, as he will not kill me first. He is evil and cruel and will delight in killing everyone for the sport of it in front of me before killing me.”
Brìghde closed her eyes, took a deep breath and released it slowly through puffed cheeks, suddenly not so sure about this bargain after all. Then again, she had her own weapon and she had the wherewithal to use it. “I ken you need a noble bride and quickly. But why do you need Lady Margaret specifically?”
“Firstly, if Dunham found out who snatched his daughter, he would descend upon me, but most of Dunham’s force is in France fighting my force, so holding off that siege indefinitely would be no feat. It would give me time to woo and seduce Lady Margaret to my side. I could also hold off Fàileach—” She didn’t bother to correct his atrocious attempt at Gaelic. “—if he could be arsed to care enough to join in, and I gambled that he wouldn’t, as I am told Dunham and Fàileach don’t much care for each other.”
Brìghde nodded. “That’s true. My brothers have all but disavowed my father, so my father would not lift a finger to avenge the insult.”
“Secondly, I did not know you existed.”
She harrumphed. “That is because I have been held prisoner for the last three years and I doubt you had any reason to scout MacFhionnlaigh.”
“Indeed. But now Fàileach has a reason to lay siege to me, and I will have to fend off him and MacFhionnlaigh and Dunham, for you are his son-in-law’s sister. I cannot hold off a siege of that magnitude. Sheffield won’t have to do anything, Tavendish won’t assist as I have committed a vile act of war, and Henry—”
“You won’t have to outlast any siege at all!” she chirped, interrupting him as excitement pooled in her breast.
That brought the earl up short. “Why?” he asked suspiciously.
“Firstly, Dunham would not have lifted a finger on my behalf.”
“You may never have heard of me, but I am infamous throughout the Lowlands for outwitting my father time and time again. Everyone, including my father, will assume that I had arranged for my own abduction.”
Kenard and all his men gaped at her.
“Aye, my father is enraged, but my mother, brothers, and Dunham are laughing themselves silly that I did it again, in spite of being held at swordpoint, and then it will spread to the other clans and my father will be humiliated he canna keep his daughter under control or outwit her. I will be blunt: I need the protection of your name so that I will be forever free of MacFhionnlaigh and Fàileach. Thus, I am willing to stand as assurance against your death and provide an heir in trade for it.
“I will write my brother and tell him ’twas indeed a plot ’twixt you and me, which was in the making for some time. My father will want to make war on me for outwitting and defying him, but he has to cross Dunham lands to do it, and Dunham won’t allow that. MacFhionnlaigh will do nothing alone as he is wet as moss and as easily trampled. Furthermore, Dunham and your English neighbor to the east, Tavendish, are good friends, no matter that the Scottish border separates them. They do not care for nor trust my father any more than I or my brothers do, nor are they impressed by Sheffield. Through me, you would be allied with Dunham and Tavendish, who might assist you with Sheffield if you laid out your plight to them. You didn’t commit a vile act of war by abducting an enemy bride, my lord. You conspired with that cunning Fàileach lass for your own purposes and hers, which are well known, and came out politically stronger with two strong nobles at your back. Your king canna but be even more impressed with you than he is now.”
The earl immediately offered his hand for her to shake. “Done.”