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 lifted his arm 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. Hearing nothing, she quickly scanned the area. There was the earl’s red-and-black destrier, saddled and with a pack on its rump, calmly drinking from the stream. She lay back down and closed her eyes.
“I know you’re awake, my lady,” the earl said dryly. “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 and she looked up with a smile, which she fought to keep on her face. 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. 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 now … now she had this handsome giant in front of her, and she knew exactly what she was feeling.
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.
She would not hesitate to swive that man.
“Here,” he said, his voice still filled with amusement 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 nodded companionably, hoping her expression would not give her away; he was wise to the ways of women. He would know what she thought of him if she weren’t careful.
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. We will see to it on the morrow.”
It was close to sunset when they made the road at the outskirts of the village. They gathered quite a bit of attention, as it was not often nobility or even such well-equipped knights came through, much less with a maiden on the rump of one of the horses. They followed the earl’s man down an alley and into a stable where a young groom met them.
He 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 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.”
“Do you mean to say,” he asked slowly, as if in pain, “that Lady Dunham is the blonde?”
“Aye,” Brìghde replied, utterly confused.
His men groaned, and the earl clapped his hands to his face and 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. 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. Now. 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 that 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 I have been in France for most of the past five years, he was content to wait until I was killed in battle to try again, but, as you can see, I am very much alive, and he is not happy. He is, right now, plotting to kill me.”
Brìghde’s mouth dropped open.
“This a man who, it is rumored, killed his cousin and his cousin’s legitimate heir—a babe, mind you—to gain the dukedom. 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 he is a duke and that title goes back centuries.
“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. If I also have a legitimate heir, there is no point to killing me at all.”
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?”
“If Dunham finds out who snatched his daughter, he will descend upon me. I am prepared for that because most of Dunham’s force is in France. I can hold off a siege by Dunham indefinitely. Now, if they find out who snatched you, I will have to fend off Fàileach—”
“Fallack,” she said, correcting his pronunciation.
“—Fallack and MacFhionnlaigh—”
“—McFinley and Dunham. 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 it will look to Henry that I am a disloyal and wayward soldier who got what he deserved.”
Brìghde’s eyes popped open. “You won’t have to outlast any siege at all!” she chirped, excitement pooling in her breast.
That brought the earl up short. “Why?” he asked suspiciously.
“I am willing to see this bargain through, my lord, as I need to be forever free of MacFhionnlaigh and Fàileach. You need a wife and heir to be free of Sheffield’s greed.”
“I will write my brother Archie, who is now married to Lady Margaret and tell him ’twas a plot ’twixt you and me, which was in the making for some time. Everyone who knows me will have expected me to find a way to get out from under my father’s thumb, so that news will come as no surprise to anyone. My brothers and my mother will be thrilled.
“My father will want to make war on you, but he has to cross Dunham lands to do it, and Dunham won’t let him. MacFhionnlaigh will do nothing alone as he is wet as moss and as easily trampled. Furthermore, Dunham and 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 came out politically stronger with two strong nobles at your back.”
The earl immediately offered his hand for her to shake. “Done.”