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
“Here you are,” Rory whispered as he set a mug full of soup down next to Gavin’s elbow.
“Wow, you lost your voice,” Girram said, staring at Rory.
Rory nodded, nudging Gavin until he picked the mug up. “Better. You look paler.”
“He nearly passed out a bit ago,” Girram said. He huffed at Gavin’s glare. “Don’t give me that. You were on your way to the floor, Gavin. If Mari hadn’t caught you, you would have collapsed.”
Gavin groaned as Rory stared at him. Yes, he’d grayed out quite badly. The entire world had seemed to be coming at him from miles away. Every sound had been distant, as though listening through a seashell. And yes, Gavin hadn’t been able to feel his arms or legs but that didn’t mean he’d passed out or been close to it.
Except he couldn’t forget Mari’s comment about face-planting in her bust. If she had told the truth then maybe Gavin actually had been on the verge of unconsciousness. Truthfully, he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten back to the chair. Nor did he know who’d put the quilt back over his lap. One minute he’d been determined to find Mother and the next he’d been sitting in the chair and Mother was already there.
“I’ll be fine,” Gavin mumbled into the mug. “This is good, Rory. Your father or grandfather’s recipe?”
“Grandfather Haley’s,” Rory said in nearly a normal tone of voice. He glared when Gavin looked at him. “We could do this tomorrow, you know.”
“No,” Gavin sighed. “You can’t. I can’t. The new regs. The summary has to be in within 24 hours, Rory.”
Rory made a face like he wanted to groan. He nodded, glaring at the Minoo reports that Gavin was going through. Then he looked around the area, striding off to grab a stool from the far wall besides a huge stack of bales of Chinwenduese silk. When he came back he pulled the worksheet out of Gavin’s hand with enough determination that Girram snorted and ducked his head to hide a grin.
“Tell me what to write,” Rory whispered, fierce and strong and entirely too energetic for Gavin’s peace of mind. “I’ll write, you read.”
It wouldn’t help much. Gavin knew that. Rory meant well but it wouldn’t help. He rather thought that it would slow him down, not that Gavin could turn the offer down when Girram looked at him so sternly.
Mari’s pleading expression, complete with swiftly bitten lip and widened eyes, certainly wasn’t the reason why Gavin didn’t protest.
He licked his lips, cheeks going hot as he tried to imagine what kissing Mari would be like. She was so tall that Gavin would have to stand on his tiptoes but even then he’d have to pull her down to his level. His fingers would curl around her neck, buried in that wonderful hair. Mari’s lips wouldn’t be smooth and soft. They’d be as rough as the callouses on her fingers. Gavin had to think that she’d be confident but cautious until he made it clear that he wanted the kiss.
Gavin flipped open the current Minoo report, searching for the last bit of data he’d recorded. Rory grinned next to him but for once he didn’t comment on Gavin’s blush. That was a blessing that Gavin gave fully to Rory’s lost voice. At any other time he knew Rory would have pestered Gavin with endless questions, continuing until Gavin was ready to throw the mug of soup at his head.
He pushed both Mari and his worries about Rory’s gossiping away, reading off the data he needed as he slowly flipped through the pages. He’d already completed four other reports so Rory should be able to record it all in the correct columns without too much trouble. Rory was usually very reliable about following previously established formats even if he used work conversation as gossip fodder.
When Gavin stopped to drink some of the soup, his throat tickling as a coughing fit threatened, Rory looked at Girram. Gavin drooped a little. That too bright look in Rory’s eyes promised a gossip session that none of them could spare the time for. Especially when Girram had what both he and Rory would consider prime gossip material.
“So,” Rory whispered, “did you see how Affrica Mari looks at him?”
“Oh yes,” Girram chortled only to stab a finger at Gavin. “You. Drink the soup! No talking from you.”
“I hate you,” Gavin complained as he set the mug down again. “I hate you both. She won’t leave her clan. She as much as said so. And you know I won’t leave the Dana, ever.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice little flirtation,” Rory whispered in what he probably intended to be an arch tone of voice. It came out far more pinched than anything, not that that shifted his eager grin. “It could even repeat. I bet she’d like to have a little something to look forward to after a long trip across the country.”
Gavin groaned as he dropped his head into his hands. A great many of his cousins and aunts had arrangements just like that, both in other parts of Aingeal and around the world. No one really cared who the father of your child was so why not have some fun with a new partner when you were in port?
Except that wasn’t what Gavin wanted. It never had been. He wanted a wife who’d be there with him, someone to wake up with every morning and grow old with over the years. If he could have his way, his wife wouldn’t travel at all though Gavin knew that finding a wife who stayed at home like a man was virtually impossible. Everyone the Dana worked with, and Gavin knew his wife would almost inevitably be someone from a clan they worked with, was adventurous.
“That’s not the best thing,” Girram said to Rory. “Gavin almost passed out, yes, but Mari caught him and I swear his face was buried in her bust.”
“It was not!” Gavin protested.
“Your forehead was right on top of her breast,” Girram declared, one hand clutching the left side of his chest. “Right here!”
“No,” Rory breathed so eagerly that Gavin swatted him. “Really?”
Gavin opened his mouth to say ‘no’ but Girram nodded solemnly, tapping his forehead, lips and heart to swear by the Tripartate Goddesses. The little gesture made Rory squeak something that normally would have been a scream. It came out whispered, strangled and strange, instead. He turned to stare at Gavin, eyes so wide and smile so bright that Gavin would have thought that he’d just been told he’d won the perfect wife, a fortune and a ship of his own to sail around the world.
“I didn’t,” Gavin insisted.
He had to grab the mug of soup as the tickle in his throat turned into a cough clawing to get free. The cough won, prompting Rory to snatch the mug away and then support Gavin as he coughed a lung up. Too much soup roiled in Gavin’s stomach. Each cough felt as though it was tearing bloody strips out of his lungs but none of them accomplished anything. Gavin sucked in air only to choke on another cough before his lungs could fill.
The world wavered, the sound of women working and wind blowing through the warehouse doors throbbing like waves crashing against the shore. Gavin held his breath, willing the coughs down. Tears crept down his cheeks. One breath, slow and careful, then a second, then a third longer, slower one finally let Gavin sit up and wipe his cheeks.
“Did not,” Gavin whispered to Rory.
“Oh for…!” Rory huffed, swallowing down a cough of his own as he glared at Gavin.
“You actually did,” Girram said. He nodded towards the soup as if that would keep Gavin from coughing more. “She didn’t seem to mind it. Seemed more worried that you were going to pass out cold on us.”
Gavin shook his head. He didn’t remember it. It felt very, very wrong that he didn’t remember what Mari’s body felt like. And unfair. Pressing up against a body like that, tall and strong, as climbable as the rigging on a Dana three-masted ship, should be something that he could never forget.
“Oh,” Rory breathed, his grin coming back. “You like her!”
“That’s obvious,” Girram said. “Besides, what’s not to like? Did you see those arms?”
“Mm-hmm,” Rory murmured, nodding to Girram as they both completely ignored Gavin’s embarrassed, furious, glare. “And the shoulders. Those were very nice.”
“Thighs,” Gavin said because really, he was going to get the gossip no matter what he did. They might as well have some truth to go with their exaggerations.
Girram cackled, nodding at Gavin while Rory spluttered and then went blazingly red. His blush made Girram peer at him, a slow grin blooming. He laughed, low and amused, as Rory whisper-groaned and dropped his head to the table. His forehead landed on the notes he’d been taking. Gavin wondered idly, sipping his soup, whether or not Rory would have imprints of the ink on his forehead.
“Has someone been enjoying his brand new wife?” Girram teased Rory.
“Shut up!” Rory hissed at him. “I swear, you’re horrible.”
Rory rolled his eyes as both Girram and Gavin raised their eyebrows at him. He gestured imperiously at Gavin’s report, picking up the pen again. There were a couple of inky smudges on his forehead but they weren’t too bad. When Gavin peeked at the paperwork nothing looked indecipherable so he didn’t comment. Let Regan clean the smudge off Rory’s forehead. As far as Gavin was concerned that was a fully appropriate wifely duty, especially if some teasing was involved.
They worked quietly for a good twenty minutes, long enough that Gavin started worrying about Mari and Mother. How were they going to handle Danica’s nonsense? What with the plot against Anwyn and her connection to the Ladies, the Dana didn’t have as much room to maneuver as normal. Danica might actually be able to force a marriage offer on Gavin. He’d have to take it seriously, too.
The terrible part was that he could argue that a marriage between someone Dana and Delbhana might be an effective way to ease the tensions between their clans. Great-Uncle Jarmon had told Gavin many times how the feud started. Jarmon had turned down a Delbhana suitor when he was just a hair older than Gavin. He’d been stunned at how personally the entire Delbhana Clan had taken the refusal, especially given that everyone, on all sides, acknowledged that Jarmon and his wife Maeve had been madly in love.
One way or the other, Gavin thought as he completed the nineteenth Minoo report and opened the final one, he couldn’t claim that he refused Danica because of anything personal. It had to be business. If an offer came. If he was given the option of saying yes or no. If it wasn’t a matter of having to make the sacrifice for their Clan to survive.
“All right, it took forever but you’re going to bed,” Shamus announced out of the blue.
“I can’t,” Gavin complained without looking up from the report. “There’s one report left to summarize and then I need to fill out the report for the Records Office. Plus it needs to be submitted before noon tomorrow.”
Rory tapped Gavin’s arm, a nervous little patter of touches that prompted Gavin to stare at him. He turned because Rory was staring over Gavin’s shoulder with the ‘I didn’t do it!’ face he always used when any of the oldest generation came to supervise their work.
Great-Aunt Maeve stood glowering down at Gavin. Her hands were relaxed around her cane’s head but her arms were far too tight. Instead of her normal jacket, vest, shirt and heavy pants, Great-Aunt Maeve was in a pair of light sleep pants with a sleeveless top that showed of every muscle that still corded her arms. She seemed at least five feet taller than normal and she had been Mari’s height when she was young.
“It needs to be done!” Gavin protested.
“Gavin,” Great-Aunt Maeve growled. “Jarmon sent me down to tell you to get your butt in bed. His words. He can’t rest if he thinks you’re overstressing yourself.”
The blatant unfairness of that made Gavin groan. He threw up his hands, staring at the ceiling far overhead. Certainly, why not? He’d just do his work from bed. Except no, apparently that wouldn’t work either because he was supposed to just stop working and let everything fall apart. The family couldn’t afford the fines the Delbhana had put in place with the new regulations.
“One report,” Gavin snarled at her. “I have one report left and then I planned on going back to bed. Just one report! But no, let’s just pay unholy fines because Great-Uncle Jarmon finds it necessary to guilt trip everyone into doing his bidding.”
He snatched the nearly complete summary out of Rory’s hands, shoving it into the Minoo report that he had left. Great-Aunt Maeve’s lips were twitching as Gavin shoved the quilt into Shamus’ arms. She seemed to find his anger amusing but then she’d lived with Great-Uncle Jarmon’s guilt trips and insulted rages for over forty years.
Shamus looked like he wanted to hide under the quilt. Rory’s mouth moved but no noise came out. And Girram had his head bent over his receipts as if absolutely nothing was happening on the other side of the table.
Gavin glared at them all. “Shamus, you’re behind on the receipts. Get that done immediately. Girram, I’ll need you or Shamus to deliver my report to the Records Office once it’s done. Rory, I need you to check on Uncle Brom and Uncle Donny. They were handling the log books and journey taxes, respectively. I expect a report at my office on how everything is going within the hour. One of you can damn well help me back up the stairs or power the lift for me because apparently bed is more important than the Clan keeping running.”
“You passed out,” Shamus protested. He started out strong but wilted under Gavin’s glare. By the final word his mouth was hidden in the quilt. “You did.”
“And I’m one report away from done,” Gavin grumbled at him. “Someone give me hand back upstairs.”
This time Gavin stood slowly and carefully, taking deep breaths so that he wouldn’t pass out all over again. He’d have to have Doctor Bernice check his ears when she came to visit. This sort of lightheadedness wasn’t right, even with this cold. If he had an ear infection brewing, that would explain it.
He made it to his feet without the world running away from him. Gavin sighed, more than willing to lean on Rory’s shoulder. It was tempting to ask for the quilt, to just wrap himself up in it, but Gavin didn’t. Keeping what little dignity he had left after pitching a fit was more important.
“Let’s go,” Gavin snapped at Rory and Great-Aunt Maeve. “Shamus, Girram, one hour! Don’t be late.”
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