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
Father pulled the kids back into the kitchen as Mari left their rooms. Mother waited until the door was shut before taking Raelin’s blanket and folding it up for Gavin. She frowned as she sat next to him, blanket resting in her lap. Gavin breathed slowly, surprised that he could actually breathe through his nose. The scratchiness in his chest was still there but not so badly that he needed something to drink.
Gavin smoothed his kilt, frowning at how damp it felt. He must have sweated through his clothes while he slept, yet again. Time for yet another bath, not that Gavin felt strong enough to make it down to the bathroom in the warehouse. Still, he’d have get Andros to help him wash the sweat off and change into some different clothes. He did feel quite clammy without the blanket.
“She’s a character,” Mother observed.
“I think Gwen and Anwyn would adore her,” Gavin said with a little snort. “Same attitude, just in the barrel size instead of pint size.”
Mother laughed. “True. I didn’t want to say it while Mari was here but Danica’s note made it very clear that she considers Mari a rival for your hand.”
“She can’t be since Danica has no hope of getting my hand,” Gavin complained. “Not unless the marriage worked the other way around, her joining Dana and our children getting raised here.”
The sheer stupidity of the situation infuriated Gavin. It was bad enough that the Delbhana had implemented such ridiculous regulations, probably with no methodology to enforce them and no guidelines for how they were to be interpreted. That the Delbhana considered him to be nothing more than a convenient game piece in the feud was the true insult added to the marriage contract injury.
“Would you?” Mother asked.
“Marry her?” Gavin asked. He snorted when she nodded. “Yes, actually I would. Though only with specific stipulations about my treatment and freedom to leave the marriage if she was abusive. This feud has gone on too long, Mother. If she was willing to truly put the feud aside for the betterment of our Clans and the country, yes, I’d do the same.”
“She won’t,” Mother said, low, angry, hands clenching into fists.
“No, she won’t,” Gavin agreed. “A marriage alliance would be a good thing for both the Affrica and the Dana clans. Mari’s nice, respectful, and I know she’d get along well with the family. She might as well be Dana with that attitude of hers.”
“Yes, but can you bed her?” Mother asked so bluntly that Gavin squawked and blushed violently. “Does no good to arrange a marriage if there won’t be any kids from it. Caer would be willing to let you between her thighs. No way Banba would. She’s got no eyes for boys. It shows. What about Mari? You willing to let her have more than the little kisses and hand-holding I’m not supposed to know about?”
“Oh, Blessed Goddesses, I thought you missed that!” Gavin groaned. “It wasn’t much!”
“That’s my point,” Mother said, snorting and patting Gavin’s knee. “You haven’t shown many signs of interest in girls, Gavin. I don’t want to shove you into a relationship with a woman if you’re interested in men. Or not interested in sex at all.”
Gavin groaned, hiding his face in his hand. They smelled of soup and liniment, sweat and ink. It was nice to be able to smell anything though he suspected that his nose, like everyone else’s, had gotten numb to the full extent of the smells filling the house. His chin felt scratchy enough that Gavin realized he needed to shave sometime in the next couple of days. Another item to add to the list of how unkempt he was currently.
“Why am I having this conversation with you?” Gavin complained.
“Because your father made it clear that I’m head of the family and he’s tried to ask discreetly for years without getting a concrete answer,” Mother said entirely too reasonably. “So. Girls, yes or no?”
“Girls yes,” Gavin sighed behind his hands. “Mari most enthusiastically yes. She’s sweet and kind and lovely. You should ask Rory about things like that. He knows what and who everyone is interested in. I think that’s his real job.”
Mother coughed, not a real cough but the sort that hid a laugh. She patted Gavin’s shoulder fondly only to growl at him. Her hand traveled down his arm, across his thigh and then onto his back. The way she patted his back and then hissed while patting the cushions told him that he really had sweated through his clothes while napping.
“Bath,” Mother snapped. “You’re soaked with sweat.”
“I do think the fever finally broke,” Gavin said, finally dropping his hands. “I don’t feel so hot anymore.”
“Good,” Mother said. She looked too relieved over it, almost as though her spine had gone as loose as a hawser cut free.
“…How many people have died of this cold?” Gavin murmured so quietly that no one in the kitchen would be able to hear it.
“Currently it’s about one in twenty,” Mother responded equally quietly. “We’re more or less okay but I’m very worried about Jarmon. And Mari’s sisters. It hit them hard. We’ve lost a few sailors and…”
“It’s spreading across the city,” Gavin finished for her. “Epidemic?”
“Looks like,” Mother agreed. “Mari’s team isn’t leaving until after the worst is over. Doctor Bernice sent a message saying that antibiotics are worthless. It’s not something she can treat. Once we have a few more people over the cold she’s going to work on vaccinations for it.”
Gavin sighed. They’d have to make their blood donations anonymously. The Delbhana had put strict restrictions on who could donate for vaccines after the last epidemic had swept through the city two years ago. He couldn’t help but glare out the window. Yet another thing that the Delbhana interfered with that they should leave alone. Public health should be kept firmly out of the politicians’ hands. Otherwise things got far too complicated and people died.
“I’m having your father draw a hip bath for you,” Mother said. “Get you and Caddie both clean, then do the kids. We can all certainly use it.”
“Um, do we have to do that right away?” Gavin asked. He glanced at the door, biting his lip.
“She’s got to talk to her sisters,” Mother groaned. “For all the Goddesses’ sakes, it’s going to take a while, Gavin. We’ll close the kitchen door if it bothers you.”
“I like her, Mother,” Gavin said with a huff that nearly set off a coughing fit. “That doesn’t mean I’m willing to seduce her by getting naked in front of her before we’ve even kissed.”
She laughed, patting Gavin’s shoulder only to make a face at how wet he was. That seemed to be the end of any of Gavin’s efforts to put the bath off. Mother wouldn’t even let him argue for going down to the bathroom and bathing there. Instead he found himself in the boys bunk room with Caddie, slowly stripping out of his clothes.
To his surprise Cadfael appeared to have no issues with bathing at all. He smiled as he stripped out of his lace-covered kilt and layers of fashionable petticoats. At least until he saw that Gavin had chosen plain flannel underwear.
“Really?” Cadfael asked. His voice was nearly as far gone as Rory’s. “Plain flannel?”
“It was warm,” Gavin complained. “I was still feverish. Oh hush, Caddie. At least I didn’t wear twenty lace petticoats to cook soup.”
“Only four,” Cadfael countered with a little snuffle that was probably supposed to be a sniff of disapproval.
Anything else he was going to say didn’t get released upon Gavin and the world. Probably a good thing given the snide expression on Cadfael’s face when Father opened the door. Cadfael headed for the kitchen wrapped in his robe readily enough but Gavin hesitated, checking to make sure that the front door was securely closed first. If that gave Cadfael first rights to the hot water, so be it. Gavin didn’t care. Father surely had another pot full of water heating up anyway.
Erlina and Treva giggled with Andros in the girl’s room, their voices high and sweet as Gavin slipped from the bunk room to the kitchen. He leaned against the door as he secured the latch. It wasn’t much, just a simple hook, but it would at the very least keep anyone from running in while Gavin and Cadfael were bathing.
That done, Gavin turned. He froze as he realized that very soon this might not be his kitchen, his home. If he married Mari, or Danica for that matter, Gavin wouldn’t live in this apartment anymore.
There would be a different stove, maybe one smaller than the monstrous woodstove that Mother had gotten father, big enough for six stock pots side by side but hungry for fuel on an hourly basis. He wouldn’t have to deal with the pump that rattled and creaked as you drew water up from the well below the Clan house.
And maybe instead of a simple pantry full of canned goods Gavin could talk Mari (or Danica) into a cold box though the price of ice during the summer was somewhat horrific. Gavin looked around the old kitchen, its battered walls and scuffed wood floor, with new eyes. He wouldn’t have to put up with shelves that were too narrow to hold mixing bowls. He could have a shelf for recipes that wasn’t directly over the stove, perpetually damp and greasy. If Mari (or Danica) was willing, he might even be able to put in a little drain a corner of the kitchen so that he wouldn’t have to haul water downstairs once he was done with it.
‘I could have a home that’s just the way I want it,’ Gavin thought wonderingly as he stared at the far wall and it’s steamy windows. Father had, thankfully, opened the high window in the kitchen to let the worst of the steam out. The fresh air that poured in made Gavin shiver. He could see Cadfael’s skin dimpling up as he quickly washed his hair and then let Father pour warm water over him.
“Do we have to have the window open?” Cadfael complained.
“Feels good to me,” Gavin said as he perched on Cadfael’s stool by the stove. There was another pot of wash water slowly simmering there, as he’d expected.
“Let me get your hair, Caddie,” Father interrupted before Cadfael could say something scathing about Gavin’s lack of common sense. “Sooner done, sooner dry and wrapped up in a blanket with your embroidery.”
They did a quick job of rinsing Cadfael’s waist-length hair out, focusing mostly on the scalp of course. Gavin abandoned the stool to help dry Cadfael’s hair off while Caddie and Father got his body and then the floor dried off. As soon as his body was dry, Caddie wrapped his hair up in a towel so that he could escape back to the boy’s room cocooned in his elaborately embroidered robe.
“Where’s Mother?” Gavin asked. He glanced at the kitchen door before slipping out of his much plainer robe.
“Guarding the door,” Father chuckled. “You do like Mari? Shoulders, arms, bust or legs?”
“Father, please, I’d rather not get an erection in the middle of the kitchen,” Gavin complained. “Must you?”
“I’ll take that as a yes, finally.” Father laughed outright at Gavin’s glare. “Into the bath. You need it far worse than Caddie did.”
He did. Gavin washed his hair first, glad that it was only shoulder length instead of waist length even though Father shook his head in disapproval. By the time he crouched in the wash basin and began washing his body, the water was already turning dingy gray. It still felt good to get properly clean no matter how his skin dimpled for the breeze coming in the window.
“I should demand a private bath,” Gavin muttered as he carefully rinsed the soap off with Father’s latest batch of warm water.
“Good luck on that,” Father replied. “I don’t think the plumbing in the Clan house will handle it.”
“We should invest in fixing the plumbing,” Gavin said even though a quick series of calculations in his head as he held his hair up for Father to rinse his back said no, not possible.
“Only if everyone in the family saves up and contributes.” Father chuckled. “Even then the water mains wouldn’t be able to handle it. You know everyone would want a private bath and toilet.”
Gavin sighed, nodding. Slop buckets were among the biggest complaints the men in the Clan had. Still, it was something that needed to be taken care of. If he had power then it would be fixed. He stood and shivered as he started dying off. Father frowned at him, wrapping the towel around Gavin’s hips when Gavin just stood there.
“I will have the power to fix it,” Gavin whispered, heart beating faster. His knees quivered. “I’ll have the responsibility to fix it, won’t I?”
Father laughed, low and fond as he dumped a second towel over Gavin’s head. “Of course you will, Gavin. And you’ll have all of our support. With arguments, yes, but still. Now dry off and get clean clothes on. I need to get the kids in here next. You don’t want to be naked when Mari gets back from her sisters.”
Gavin squawked, coughed and then dried off as quickly as he could. No, no nakedness yet. He was careful not to splash water on the floor as he got out of the washbasin so that Father would have less to clean up later but Gavin still hurried back into his robe. When he unlatched the kitchen door Mother was there, leaning against their front door. She smiled and waved for Gavin to head to the boy’s room.
“Thank you!” Gavin said as he hurried in and shut the door.
“Get dressed,” Mother said with a booming laugh. “And don’t overexert yourself! You’re still not well yet.”
He sighed as he leaned against the boy’s room door. Caddie raised an eyebrow at him without saying anything but he’d already laid out clean clothes for Gavin to change into. Gavin nodded his thanks, slowly going over to run his hand over the Dana blue plaid kilt and lace-trimmed petticoat and bloomers. When Gavin held up the lacy underthings Cadfael blinked at him innocently.
“I am not seducing her,” Gavin huffed as he went to his trunk to find warmer underclothes. “I don’t need the fine underthings, Caddie.”
“Never hurts,” Cadfael whispered, slowly and gently combing the tangles out of his wet hair. “Besides, you never know what will happen next.”
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