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
10. Wake Up
Gavin jerked awake, staring around wildly until his dream of working his way through ten foot tall stacks of paperwork faded into Mari’s amused face. She shrugged apologetically, offering Gavin the folio she and Mother had taken to the Records Office.
“Didn’t mean t’wake y’up,” Mari apologized. “But bent over like that y’neck was gonna get a mighty crick.”
He stared for a moment, taking in the gentle concern, her hair falling seductively around her cheeks, and then laughed softly. “I didn’t realize I’d fallen asleep. I was doing paperwork in my dreams.”
His neck was sore and there was a small drool spot on the pillow he’d stuffed between his shoulder and the large picture window. Not to mention that his rear end was quite numb from having sat on the old window seat cushions for entirely too long. Someone had covered him with a blanket while he slept. It smelled of sea salt and spices so it probably was one of Raelin’s that had been packed away while she was gone.
“Thank you,” Gavin said. He pushed the blanket aside, surprised to find it too warm. “I appreciate your turning that in for me.”
“Not a problem,” Mari said. She frowned at the blanket. “Sure y’should be gettin’ up?”
Gavin rubbed his chest and nodded. “Mm-hmm. It’s too hot. I think my fever must have finally broken.”
Mari frowned. She reached out and rested the back of her hand against Gavin’s forehead. Her fingers were cool but no more so than he would have expected from someone who’d been outside for a while. His cheeks flared hot with a blush that had to stain his face as red as his hair. The contact seemed so much more important than it actually was, setting his heart beating faster and his hands to fluttering as if he was Cadfael after being flirted with. Despite his reaction, Mari’s frown didn’t fade.
“Don’t feel too hot,” Mari observed. “Doesn’t mean you should push it, though.”
“No, I agree,” Gavin said. He swallowed down his nerves and struggled to control his voice. “I don’t intend to overextend myself. There were things that had to be done today and I was the only one who could do it.”
“Y’really are, aren’t you?” Mari murmured as if he’d said something far more significant than that.
“Am what?” Gavin asked.
“The heart,” Mari replied, slow, serious, with eyes that seemed to see nothing but Gavin. “The heart of the Dana.”
Erlina ran out of the girl’s room, giggling madly as she ran towards the kitchen. Apparently someone had been changing her clothes for dinner because Erlina was completely naked, her fluff of red curls bouncing around her ears. Treva ran after her with a pair of Dana blue pants and a thick sweater Aravel had knitted years ago. She was giggling too. When Andros appeared at the door of the girl’s room, his expression was anything but amused. He glared after their three and five year old sisters as if he intended to drag them both back by their ears.
Mari’s eyes flicked sideways but her expression didn’t change. Gavin licked his lips, his mouth sour from sleeping with it open. Years ago, when Gavin was Andros’ age, he’d heard Mother say the same thing about Great-Uncle Jarmon. The comment had been completely casual on her part, a joke between her and Father, but it had stuck in Gavin’s mind afterwards.
“That’s my great-uncle, Jarmon,” Gavin said.
“You his heir?” Mari asked.
Gavin sighed and nodded. “Yes.”
“Then it’s you, too,” Mari said. “My Pa’s the same way. Sure, it’s Ma who gives the orders and makes the deals. She’s the one what hires and fires workers. But Pa’s the one who takes care of everyone. He’s the one everyone, in the Clan and out of it, goes to when there’s a problem. They’re after you, y’know?”
“The Delbhana?” Gavin asked.
Mari nodded, still staring at him with that too intent, too serious expression. Cadfael croaked something harsh and angry in the kitchen but when Andros herded Erlina and Treva back towards the girls’ bedroom they all had cookies. Erlina was dressed, too, so apparently Cadfael felt better. He’d refused to tend to the little ones while he felt sick.
“It’s not the first time,” Gavin whispered. “Years ago they tried to steal all the kids. Tried to say that we weren’t properly educated, that our Clan school wasn’t teaching us to minimum requirements. Raelin and I stopped them then. And other times. They want to take all of the kids, Mari, not just me.”
“You’re not a kid,” Mari said. “You’re a man grown, Dana Gavin. You’re grown and of age and I’m pretty sure they want t’steal you away so that all that knowledge y’got in y’pretty head is theirs.”
“I’ll never leave the Dana Clan,” Gavin said. He glared at her. “Never. This is my home and I won’t marry out.”
She nodded, finally turning away to stare out the window at the neighboring roof below. Cadfael coughed, harsh and dry. Erlina and Treva’s giggles echoed over Andros’s mildly annoyed voice. Gavin couldn’t tell what they were saying.
He didn’t honestly care. The thought of leaving the Dana, living somewhere other than this complicated mishmash of apartments over the warehouses full of family, horrified him. This was his home. Gavin couldn’t imagine packing his things and going somewhere else. Why would he leave his family, home and career?
“They’re tryin’ to trap you,” Mari murmured. Her voice was deep enough to be a rumble over Gavin’s skin more than something in his ears. “Laoise’s holding a meeting ri’ now. She thinks the threat is real. Delbhana Danica might actually have a chance of winning your hand.”
“My ‘hand’?” Gavin snapped loudly enough that the giggles abruptly stopped in the girls’ room. Cadfael poked his head out of the kitchen to stare at them. “My ‘hand’ isn’t some prize to be won. I will marry when and who I choose and there’s not a thing that you, Mother or the Tripartate Goddesses themselves can say about it. Danica is perfectly free to offer. I’ll turn her down unless she agrees to join the Dana. Frankly, she’d actually be welcome to join the clan. This stupid feud has gone on long enough.”
Mari stared at Gavin, the solemnity disappearing into a grin that was full of delight. She looked startlingly like Gwen when there was a brawl about to begin but she didn’t look anywhere besides Gavin’s face. He flapped a hand at Cadfael who snorted and disappeared back into the kitchen. The kids peeked about that time and they stayed by the door, staring at Gavin and Mari sitting together on the window seat Mother and built for Father after their second wedding anniversary.
When Mari nodded approvingly, Gavin’s stomach flipped. He put a hand over his chest, not because he felt a cough coming on but because his heart pounded against his breastbone. Her approval felt different. More important. More significant, somehow. Gavin licked his lips, staring at the blanket and then plucking at the edge of it nervously.
“Good,” Mari said. “Good for you. Good for your family, too. Too many women expect their sons t’just do as they’re told whether they’re happy with the women chosen f’them or not.”
“Most Dana marriages are love matches,” Gavin explained. “Even the ones that seal alliances and deals tend to be between people who at least like each other. I think a lot of our alliance marriages come from deals that started because two people decided they were in love.”
“My Ma said this was important,” Mari mused. She looked out over the city again, frowning slightly. “That the future of Aingeal is bein’ decided here and now, in the streets and businesses all around us. Didn’t understand what she meant until today. There’s a battle goin’ on. The Delbhana and their followers want to stomp everyone else down. And the Dana want to stop ’em.”
“Yes,” Gavin agreed. He watched Mari, not the city below. Spring sunlight filtered through scudding clouds shimmered on her sunburnt cheeks. It sparked threads of gold in her brown hair. “I don’t think that most people know just how serious it is. Every day something new happens. I don’t know when it’ll end, how, but the Dana came from pirates. We’re not likely to back down without a fight.”
Instead of the expected surprise, disapproval or covert horror that Gavin always got when he confessed to Great-Grandmother Anwyn’s former profession, Mari burst into laughter. She grinned and offered her fist to Gavin, nodding for him to do the same. When he slowly made a fist she gently bumped their knuckles together. Gavin grinned. He’d have to teach Raelin, Anwyn and Gwen that one.
“Good for you,” Mari repeated, eyes sparkling with amusement. “Raiders an’ pirates gotta work together, y’know.”
Treva laughed and ran over, scrambling up into Mari’s lap to hold up her fist. The intrusion didn’t seem to bother Mari. She just fist-bumped with Treva and then laughed heartily as Erlina and Andros came over to do the same. Mari almost immediately ended up with a lap full of little kids babbling questions at her about what that meant and when you did it.
Gavin leaned back and let Mari handle the little ones since she seemed to enjoy cuddling them so much. None of the other women who’d flirted with him at parties had expressed interest in children. Every single one had said things about wanting to wait and not looking forward to being pregnant.
Understandable, given how dangerous pregnancy was for women, Gavin thought as Erlina tried to climb on top of Mari’s head only to get belly kisses and tickling that made her squeal with delight. Dana women tended to have fewer problems than most but Mari wasn’t Dana. Maybe she would want to wait, too. Though looking at her expression as Erlina hugged her, half strangling Mari, made Gavin suspect that she wanted a whole brood of children to play with.
“Are you going to marry Gavin?” Treva asked Mari.
“Doubt it, smidgelet,” Mari said confidently even though she looked surprisingly sad about it. “He doesn’t want t’leave the Dana an’ I like being Affrica.”
“Awww,” Treva complained. “That’s no fair. You’re fun. You give cuddles!”
Mari laughed so loud that Andros tumbled backwards into Gavin’s lap. She grabbed Erlina and Treva, mock-squishing them with a hug that made both girls squeal and kick and laugh with delight. Gavin cuddled Andros as he grinned at Mari and the girls. Watching them made it easier to ignore the little hurt inside at the confirmation that Mari didn’t want to leave her Clan.
It was silly. Of course she didn’t want to leave her family. She’d only just met Gavin. There wasn’t anything there for her. In the name of the Tripartate Goddesses, she’d only seen Gavin when he was sick, feverish, and dressed in his oldest, most worn clothes with filthy hair no less.
The front door to the apartment opened. Mother came in, Father on her heels. Both of them had absolutely grim expressions until they saw Mari laughing and hugging Treva and Erlina. Treva squealed as she somehow squirmed right out of Mari’s grip. She ran over and bounced around Mother’s feet, hands held high in the air.
“I’m a smidgelet!” Treva exclaimed.
“A what?” Mother asked, laughing as she hoisted Treva up and kissed her cheek soundly.
“Smidgelet,” Mari explained, grinning as she gave Erlina a matching kiss because of Erlina’s pouting and tugging at her collar. “Y’got babies, smidgelets what don’t come up to mid-thigh, kidlets f’the kids what don’t come higher’n chest high an’ then big kids. Back home, Ma says you can only pack two kidlets per barrel but you can fit six smidgelets if you’re careful.”
Both Mother and Father burst out laughing at that. Father waved for the kids to come help in the kitchen. Gavin let Andros down and then shooed Erlina off. None of them would be any help cooking but it did get the children out of the way for what Gavin suspected would be a very uncomfortable discussion of his future.
“Want me t’leave?” Mari asked as Mother came over and sighed while staring at Raelin’s quilt between them.
“No, that’s not necessary,” Mother said. “You’re part of the problem.”
“News?” Gavin asked quietly.
“Yes,” Mother sighed. “Sometimes I swear the tides just go against us.”
“What’s wrong?” Mari asked, her grim, serious face back on. It looked odd after the laughter with the kids.
Mother didn’t answer right away. She stuffed her hands into her waistcoat pockets, rocking on her toes so that her heels tapped against the scuffed wood floor. Gavin swallowed down his nervousness, wishing for a mug of soup or tea or something to fiddle with. Something to wet his suddenly dry throat.
“It’s hard,” Mother mused. “Delbhana Danica sent a letter stating that she intends to offer for your hand, Gavin. She said that she’d pay all the marriage taxes, no small thing given our Clan’s wealth. She also said that she expected that you’d join the Delbhana, that you’d keep working for us, and that any children you have with her would bear both the Dana and Delbhana names. They’d get to choose which clan they belonged to when they reached the age of majority.”
“Which clan would they be reared in?” Gavin asked. He was pretty sure he knew the answer to that.
“Delbhana of course,” Mother said.
“Then no, I won’t do it,” Gavin said. “What’s the hard part? Everyone knows I won’t leave the Clan. I live here. I work here. I’ll raise any children I father here. Period.”
The way Mother nodded, slow, serious, but without meeting Gavin’s eyes, told him that whatever it was had to be very bad indeed. Mari seemed to realize it too. She sat up straight, hands clenched on her thighs as she stared into Mother’s eyes.
“At the same time that we got the offer,” Mother said so slowly that Gavin bit his lip, “we got notice of a new regulation. To ‘prevent women from being defrauded’ by men who ‘string multiple women along’, all marriage offers are to be treated as contracts. While the offer is in play the man in question cannot entertain any other women. At all. The way it’s written implies that you’re not allowed to speak to cousins, much less anyone outside the clan.”
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