The last thing Mari expected when she and her sisters arrived in Aingeal City with a load of trade goods was to land squarely in the middle of a marriage alliance. But that was the only way to save her clan and the Dana clan from the Delbhana plot that threatened not just them, but the entire world.
Mixing fantasy with romance, author Meyari McFarland expertly crafts a sweet romance that defies categories and instantly charms.
By Meyari McFarland
Mari frowned at Gavin. A pushy suitor seemed to be the least of his problems. From the way Gavin reacted Mari would have thought that she’d said that their entire clan was about to be disbanded. She turned to look at Gavin’s friends and started as she saw they looked just as serious and worried. Little Andros was the only one who looked as confused as she felt.
“All right then,” Mari said, making an effort not to blur the three words into the drawled ‘arithen’ that was more common back home. “Y’able to walk or should I carry you?”
“Carry him!” the turbaned friend exclaimed.
“Do it!” the other friend said, beaming.
“I can walk!” Gavin squawked. “Shut up, Girram, Shamus!”
They both laughed. Girram seemed to be the one wearing the turban, Shamus the more averagely dressed one. Andros laughed with them, clapping his hands with delight. None of their laughter seemed to please Gavin. He grumbled and shoved the quilt off before standing quickly.
Mari grabbed his elbows because he just as quickly started to slump on top of her. She stood, supporting Gavin, as he panted. His head slowly dipped until his forehead pressed against her left breast. While Gavin didn’t seem aware of it, Andros, Girram and Shamus certainly were. Their grins were so bright that Mari was tempted to cover Gavin up with the quilt just to protect him.
And to obscure the way he smelled. Despite being too sick to stand up, Gavin smelled of home cooking and warm fires. Mari would have sworn the man had just stepped away from a stove or camp fire. It had to be her imagination. Nearly everything in the Clan house smelled of liniment, not cozy fireplaces.
His hands curled into her jacket pockets, anchoring him so that he didn’t slide any further. That just pressed his face even harder into Mari’s breast. She wasn’t sure what to do about it besides ignore it, not with friends, family, workers and Andros right there. Under different circumstances she might have pushed Gavin back into his chair and lifted that plain, respectable kilt to see if he wore lace on his bloomers like some of the men back home.
“I can walk,” Gavin mumbled. “In a second. Dizzy. Sorry.”
“Take all the time y’need,” Mari chuckled. “Still think y’should be lying down instead o’ workin’. Oh, stop that, you lot! The man’s sick.”
Girram and Shamus exchanged exactly the sort of looks that made Mari think they had wives or lovers. Girram’s lick of his lips was much too suggestive and Shamus wagged his eyebrows at Mari as if she’d intended some sort of innuendo. That sort of sexual knowledge seemed to go right over Andros’ head, thank all the Goddesses for that. Mari just shook her head at them before turning to Andros.
“Can y’do us a favor and find your mother, kidlet?” Mari asked. “Might be better for her to come to us instead of Gavin tryin’ t’go to her.”
“I’m not a kidlet,” Andros complained. He glared up at Mari, hands on his hips. “I’m a big boy! I help out in the warehouse and everything.”
Mari couldn’t help but grin. “But you’re so little! A big kid’d come up to my chest. ‘Course, you’re not a smidgelet, either, so kidlet will have to do.”
“Smidgelet?” Andros asked much less hostilely.
“Ah, a smidgelet’d only come up to my knee, thigh tops,” Mari explained as seriously as she possibly could. “Smidgelets are little ones. Below that y’only got babies, you know.”
Andros crowed, clapping his hands with delight as he hopped down from the table. “I’ll go find her right now! Kidlet!”
He ran off into the crowd chanting ‘smidgelet, kidlet, big boy’. Mari shook her head and eased Gavin back down into his chair. His face was far too pale, even for someone as pale as the people of Aingeal City tended to be. It was also damp with sweat and his eyes didn’t quite focus on Mari’s face as his head lolled back towards her.
“Stay with me,” Mari said. She caught his chin, holding his head up for him. “Deep breath, Gavin. Give me a deep breath.”
Apparently he wasn’t completely gone because Gavin sucked in a shaky breath and then let it out in a long shuddery sigh. From the corner of her eye, Mari could see Girram’s expression go concerned. Shamus stood up and came around the long table to spread Gavin’s blanket over his legs again. He pressed fingers against Gavin’s throat, grumbling deep in his chest.
“Thready pulse,” Shamus said.
“I thought he said he was getting better,” Girram complained. “Darn it, I would have sent him back up to bed if I’d realized he was still this bad. He’ll have a relapse.”
“I’m fine,” Gavin mumbled, blinking his eyes several times without managing to focus on Mari’s face. “Really.”
“Y’ought to be in bed,” Mari complained, “and no arguments. Damn near passed out on me for a second there.”
Whatever Gavin intended to say, what came out was a nonverbal grumble that was more a matter of rubbing his cheek against Mari’s hand than actually making sounds. Shamus huffed, hands on his hips while Girram sighed. Shamus hurried away, hopefully to get some sort of medicine for Gavin.
“What happened?” Dana Laoise asked behind Mari.
“Started to go find you,” Mari said, “then damn near passed out.”
“Before that?” Laoise asked wryly enough that Mari turned to look at her. She was alone. “I sent Andros back upstairs to take care of his siblings. The boy was rambling about his younger siblings being something called smidgelets.”
Mari spluttered and snickered. She didn’t let Gavin go, didn’t stand up, but the snickers did make it harder for her to keep from shaking Gavin. He smiled as he drew in another, stronger, breath and then let it out more smoothly. The third breath he took was stronger still. By the time he finished and looked at her his eyes no longer looked blank.
“I’m fine,” Gavin repeated.
“I’d believe it a bit more if you hadn’t face-planted on my chest,” Mari murmured.
“Oh no,” Gavin groaned. He hid his face in his hands, knocking Mari’s arm away. “I didn’t.”
“Mm-hmm.” Mari sighed and stood only to perch on the edge of the table. Laoise had that almost-but-not-quite approving expression on her face. She almost hated to ruin it but Laoise definitely needed to know Mari’s news. “Sorry. A’ri, got to the Court Office an’ there were Delbhana fops in front o’ me. Turns out their little leader was Delbhana Danica who pitched a minor fit that I’d dared to speak to Gavin. Seems she’s decided Gavin’s goin’ to marry her an’ what he wants doesn’t matter.”
The single word was as far from a question as Mari’s hometown was from the sea. Mari winced and shrugged while Gavin sighed. He dropped his hands from his face and folded them entirely too precisely in his lap. Testament to how close he’d come to passing out, Gavin seemed mildly surprised to find the quilt back over his lap.
He didn’t look to Mari like he wanted to answer the not-question. Mari couldn’t blame him. Wasn’t like he’d been the one dealing with the Delbhana fop’s foolishness. She shrugged, pulling Laoise’s attention back away from Gavin and onto Mari instead.
“Don’t know what her damage is,” Mari said while crossing her arms over her chest so that she wouldn’t make fists. Making fists around a brawler like Dana Laoise didn’t seem like the best idea ever. “Told her outright never t’say such a thing around me again, no matter who the man was. She seemed… certain is a good word for it. Certain that she’d get what she wanted. And she seemed t’think that she had the right to order a woman she’d never met to never speak or interact with Gavin ever again, business between our clans be damned to the Morrigan’s Hells.”
“Fuck,” Laoise whispered. Her eyes shifted from angry to worried. “You know who was with her?”
“Nope,” Mari said. “Foppish bunch of young women with too much money and not enough to do but that’s all. Only found out Danica’s name because your Andros was waiting for me at the door. He told me her name. Do know that Sean knew who they were. Apparently he claimed that the contracts weren’t signed proper because he wanted to get me away from them.”
“I should go talk to him,” Gavin said, pushing the blanket away again.
“No,” Mari growled at him. “You nearly passed out just standing up! You need to go back to bed, Gavin.”
“Agreed,” Laoise said as Gavin opened his mouth to protest. “Gavin, you were three sheets to the wind when I arrived. You’re getting better but you’re not back in home port yet. When Shamus gets back have him help you upstairs. The records are all here. If it takes a couple of extra days to process them then it takes a couple of extra days.”
Gavin opened his mouth to say something, probably an argument. He shut it again when Laoise held up one hand warningly. Then he glared as if he’d just been slapped. His jaw worked for several seconds, during which he looked away from them and towards the stack of receipts and books that he’d been working on.
“That would be fine if Great-Uncle Jarmon was well,” Gavin said in such a stiff, formal tone that Mari winced. Laoise only frowned so she had to be made of sterner stuff than Mari. “The newest regulations state that preliminary reports on an incoming ship have to be delivered to the Court Office within twenty-four hours. I can compile what we need from the Minoo reports easily enough but I can’t do it from my bunk. There isn’t enough room.”
Laoise groaned, rubbing the back of her neck with one calloused hand. “Fine. I forgot about that. But you’re not going out of the house until you can stand and breathe easily, Gavin. I won’t lose you to pneumonia. I don’t want to lose anyone to this cold and yes, I know Jarmon’s the most likely to die from it.”
“His age,” Gavin agreed with a tiny nod. “I’ll be good, Mother but this does need to be done.”
“Good,” Laoise said. She smiled at Gavin warmly enough that he blushed and flapped a hand at her and Mari to go away. Laoise turned to Mari and stabbed a finger at her. “You. With me. We’re going to find out what’s going on.”
“They were on the sidewalk when I came in,” Mari warned her. “Might start a pitched battle if we go out there together.”
“Take the contract,” Gavin said. He grinned at the way both Mari and Laoise started. “If you’re heading back to talk to Sean you might as well take the contract with you. It still needs to be submitted and filed.”
Mari grabbed the folio. She spared an idle hope that Gavin was right that Sean had been trying to get her out of trouble. If it really did need more signatures they might have a problem. But no, Mari and Laoise were the ones who needed to sign it so the two of them together was about perfect on that front. Laoise nodded approvingly before striding off towards the far end of the warehouse like she was going off to battle.
“Go,” Gavin murmured. “I truly will be fine.”
“Stay seated at least,” Mari pleaded and let it be actual pleading. Gavin blushed brightly and looked away. “That was terrifyin’. Rest. We’ll take care of this.”
“Good luck,” Gavin said. “And hurry. You’re about to lose her.”
Mari looked and then ran after Laoise. The woman moved like her legs were ten miles long for all that she was half Mari’s height. Voices rose and then fell as Mari hurried after Laoise. No one got in Laoise’s way and, pretty quick-like, no one got in Mari’s way either. The other women looked like they’d rather be anywhere other than in front of Laoise. Once she passed relief swept across their faces. Their passage left a wake of gasps, silence and then worried murmurs that slowly returned to the chatter that was normal for a big warehouse.
“Hey,” Mari said as she carefully touched Laoise’s shoulder. “This a real threat?”
“Very,” Laoise growled. “The damn Delbhana have tried over and over to destroy us. I doubt that Danica is the heart of this plot. We got one I know about currently that they’re stirring against Anwyn, one of my daughters, but I’m damned sure that Danica’s taking advantage of the mess.”
Mari nodded. Even with her longer legs, Laoise set a brisk pace through a completely different set of hallways than what Andros had showed her before. The whole place was a maze that Mari didn’t think she’d ever figure out. Path finding skills learned in the sheer mountain trails back home didn’t do a heck of a lot of good in apparently identical hallways in this cavernous warehouse home.
“This a threat to my family?” Mari asked.
Laoise slowed, stopped. She stared at the floor for a long moment before turning to look up into Mari’s eyes. “Almost certainly. They’ve destroyed clans that tried to work with us before. None as big as yours but… It has happened.”
This time Mari looked away, staring in the direction that she thought the front door was. Her mother’s warnings to be careful in the city took on a completely different tone now. If Laoise was right, and she certainly looked as though she believed it, then Mari’s actions might impact her family in ways they never had before.
“I’d leave the clan before I’d let my actions hurt them,” Mari murmured.
“It shouldn’t come to that,” Laoise said softly, without confidence. Her hand on Mari’s elbow was tentative, not firm.
“Mm, shouldn’t doesn’t mean a lot,” Mari replied. “Figure you should scold me on the way out for flirting with the Records Clerk. I did a bit o’ that t’throw that Delbhana fop off the trail.”
Laoise laughed, sharp and loud in the narrow hallway. “And here I thought Gavin was your type.”
“Hardworking pocket beauties are always my type,” Mari said. She couldn’t help a little sigh of relief that Laoise didn’t seem to mind Mari’s interest in Gavin, despite the poor man’s illness. “Sean’s a nice enough man, I s’pose. Was more to make Danica realize she was being a little twit. Doubt it worked. She doesn’t seem t’have the intelligence t’realize how stupid it all was.”
Laoise’s laughter lasted this time. She strode off up the hallway, waving for Mari to follow. Mari hurried after her. She would have to be more careful now that she knew just how serious the threat to their clans was. Come what may, Mari wouldn’t be the one to cause her family to go out of business or to destroy Gavin’s life.
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