The six days between new and old year in Aingeal were a time of feasting and family.
Gwen was more than happy to feast. She’d rather spend less time helping her brother Cadfael shop instead of eating.
Until Tierney Nolan walked in and stole her heart.
Unfortunately, Gwen had no hope of more, not when Nolan’s family had nothing to offer the Dana and every reason to want her to go away.
By Meyari McFarland
Gwen held the door for Cadfael, sighing as her persnickety little brother immediately curled his lip at the smell of spices and meat flooded over them. A wave of warm air billowed around them, steaming in the frosty air outside. Sweat beaded Gwen’s forehead. Caddie sighed as if the heat was wonderful. He tugged his carefully embroidered shawl higher on his shoulders before stepping into the shop, two-yard wide kilts clutched close to his hips so that they wouldn’t brush against anything.
The meat shop was packed, no surprise given that there was just one clerk behind the counter, a young man about Gwen’s age. Overhead, the rafters were draped with cured sausages that dangled temptingly. Too high for either Gwen or Caddie to reach but not impossible for a tall woman. Gwen barely glanced up at them. She’d need a ladder to reach them.
Last time she’d been by the shop, owned by a friend of the family who’d known Great-Grandmother Anwyn before she’d given up piracy and turned respectable, the counters had been arranged in a line across the far end of the big room. You had to ask to see anything behind the heavy wooden counter which always meant long lines and higher prices as people bid against you to get your cut.
Since then they’d rearranged, creating a U so that people could see the meat, fresh, cured, ground, sliced, arranged under expensive glass in frames to protect it. Arranged on leafy beds of cabbage, the meat looked delectable even to Gwen. She had no idea how good any of it was. Cooking had never been a skill Gwen learned. She only ate food, not prepared it.
The midwinter meals held on the six days that had no year were always feasts. Tomorrow’s dinner was traditionally the one where people cooked sausages and potatoes with creamy cornmeal mush seasoned by either sweet or savory spices. Gwen had already, carefully, mildly, suggested that they use savory spices. She’d gotten flat stares from Father, Caddie and even little nine year old Andros. Honestly, that was probably why she’d been detailed to escort Caddie on his shopping trip, to remind her to keep her nose out of the kitchen.
Between the new counters and the door was a small hoard of men in voluminous kilts and lacy shawls, all of them shopping for the holiday meal with a sister, aunt or their mother in tow. Most of their kilts were much smaller than Caddie’s, only a yard or so across at the base. Not a surprise. Caddie’s love of fashion pushed him to wear things that most men considered beautiful but impossible to bear.
A fair number of the men took one look at Caddie’s lace-bedecked kilt and clutched their kilts to keep from brushing up against him. Those who didn’t backed away from the counters so that Caddie had a clear look at what was for sale. Which was probably why Caddie had been sent to purchase their meat. He always impressed people, if not with his excessively fussy clothes then with the sharp edge of his tongue.
“You know what we’re supposed to get?” Gwen asked. She carefully kept her toes out of reach of the lace on the hem of Caddie’s kilt. The last thing she wanted was for Caddie to get boot marks on the lace. He had an uncanny ability to tell whose boot had done the deed.
“Didn’t you listen?” Caddie snapped. His glare could have stripped tar off their family’s ship hulls.
“No,” Gwen admitted. She grinned straight into his glare, rocking on her toes simply because she knew that it would make him huff at her. “I’m only here to open doors and carry things. As I was told.”
Caddie didn’t huff. He rolled his eyes and then waited, not at all patiently, as a pretty young clerk with freckle dusted skin and deep blue eyes nicely complimented by the simple white shop cap covering his white-blond hair finished one customer and then turned to smile brightly at him. If the smile was a bit brittle and his hands trembled, well, sterner people than him had quailed facing down Dana Cadfael in his full finery.
“How can I help you, sir?” the clerk asked.
“I sent an order in, Evan,” Caddie said. “It should be waiting for us.”
“Oh, the package?” Evan said, eyes going wide. “Ah, it’s a bit heavy for you.”
“That’s what she’s for,” Caddie replied.
He looked over his shoulder at Gwen so of course Gwen bowed dramatically at Evan. Caddie snorted. Evan blushed, licked his lips and bobbed his head in a bow back at Gwen. He didn’t say anything, just scurried off towards the back table where a huge package wrapped in white butcher’s paper rested.
“We’re getting how much?” Gwen squawked as Evan struggled to carry it forward. “Caddie, are we buying for the whole clan?”
“Of course not,” Caddie said. “If we did we’d clear the shop out. This is just for us, Gavin and Uncle Harold. Gavin has some grand plan of sausage stuffing to go with his dinner. Mari and her sisters will be there, you know.”
“That would do it,” Gwen agreed. “They’ll eat everything in the clan house if they’re given the chance. Here give me that thing.”
She reached across the counter to tug the package out of Evan’s arms. Up close he was reasonably attractive despite the shop cap hiding his hair. He had a broader nose than most in town and a full bottom lip that invited thoughts of kissing if it weren’t for the way he paled at her hands reaching towards him.
Evan gasped as she took the package, biting that beautiful bottom lip. “Do be careful. It might leak a bit.”
“My coat’s Dana cloth,” Gwen reassured him as Caddie fished through his pocket for the money to pay. “It’ll wash out.”
Caddie paid and then turned, grand as a three master heading out to sea, and marched towards the door. Once again, the other men and their women got out of the way. Thankfully, one of them held the door open for Caddie because there was no way that Gwen was getting close to Caddie’s finery with a potentially bloody leaking package of meat slung over her shoulder.
He swept outside, shuddering at the cold, and turned towards home with a brief nod to someone. Gwen followed, stopping square in the doorway as she came face to face with the most beautiful man she’d ever seen.
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