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 stood in the door of Gavin’s restaurant, staring. When he’d said small she’d expected a handful of tables, maybe a narrow hallway that she’d have to turn sideways to walk down. This wasn’t small. This was tiny, miniscule, a closet turned into something glorious. She reached out and her palms touched either red brick wall.
Overhead, the roof was bare timbers decorated with hanging bundles of herbs. The left side of the room had the narrowest, skinniest kitchen she’d ever seen with a tiny stove, black with soot, a sink piled high with bowls and plates and bare plank shelves piled with pots and pans, bowls and sturdy red clay mugs, climbing the wall right up to the rafters overhead.
A long counter, raw, unfinished wood a good four inches thick, stretched from the back wall to a bare yard from the door. Stools tucked under the counter, giving guests places to sit. Laughter burbled when Mari realized that there was a foot rail made of a long twisted branch of iron wood bolted to the base of the counter.
And the smells! Mari breathed deep, eyes sliding half shut as pepper, clove and slow-roasted beef filled her nose. It smelled like home, like Pa had decided to go all out for dinner, like one of the big festivals in the fall where everyone up and down the street had gathered every bit of food they had to share while people danced and sang in the square.
“Not gonna fall down if you let go,” the thin cook, tall as a woman in kilts without a single petticoat like a little boy’s, behind the counter laughed.
“Nope,” Mari said, opening her eyes to grin at him and Gavin, already perched on a stool near the back of the restaurant. “But I might. Damn, it’s like walking into my Pa’s kitchen back home.”
The cook grinned. “Well then, sit down and I’ll serve you up some food. Always glad to have someone excited about my cooking.”
He raised an eyebrow at Gavin who grinned and ducked his head as if that’d keep the cook from seeing it. Mari settled next to Gavin, her toes easily touching the floor while Gavin tucked his feet up on the foot rail, ankles crossed demurely. She couldn’t tell exactly what the cook had planned but Mari didn’t think she really cared. Everything smelled good. Right now she was more than ready for food that wasn’t boiled until it was water and pale bland scraps floating in seaweed.
“Have you been getting much business, Scully?” Gavin asked the cook.
“Not so much,” Scully replied, shrugging. “Not a surprise what with this cold going through the area. Seems like everyone’s been hit. Only got a quarter my normal traffic from the warehouse the last week or so.”
Scully grabbed a big bowl of meat out of the oven, casually taking a fistful of it and tossing it onto the grill. He poured sauce on top and nodded as he deftly chopped onion and garlic that he added to the meat. Mari sighed happily. Whatever was in the sauce, it smelled glorious, like peppers, nutmeg and honey all mixed with tomatoes.
“Spicy?” Mari asked hopefully.
“Burn Gavin’s tongue if he tried it,” Scully laughed. He splashed a little into a tiny saucer, passing it over his shoulder to Mari. “Try. I can make it hotter if you want.”
“I do hope you’re not making mine spicy,” Gavin said. “I mean, a little garlic apparently helps. Mari made a plaster for her sisters that made me eyes water but it also cut down on my coughing.”
Mari dipped her finger in the sauce as Scully grinned with such anticipation that Gavin shrank back away from him. The sauce was good, a little sweeter than she expected and not hot enough by half for her tastes. She suspected that Gavin would consider it painfully hot.
“Twice that hot?” Mari asked before Scully could say anything. “Maybe even a little hotter than that’d be nice.”
“A challenge!” Scully exclaimed as he turned his eyes up to the rafters as if praying to the Goddesses. “Finally! Lots of garlic for Gavin. Hot and spicy enough to cure the common cold for you, my dear.”
“Mari, my name is Affrica Mari,” Mari laughed. “Do good enough an’ I’ll get two more servings t’go for my sisters. They need a cure and good food’s the best cure ever.”
Scully nodded before turning back to the grill. He rolled his sleeves up and then started grabbing things off shelves and out of drawers that Mari didn’t even attempt to identify. She knew better than to ask when a man got that into his cooking. Pa threw knives at people who pestered him when his cooking was going well.
Gavin shook his head, chuckling quietly as he watched. He seemed to know what Scully chose because he raised his eyebrows at one small bowl of yellow paste and then nodded thoughtfully when Scully added little red flakes that she didn’t recognize. Even if she didn’t know what it all was, Gavin seemed to and Scully certainly did. That was good enough for her, especially when Gavin glanced at her and blushed.
Mari smiled at him, setting her chin on one hand. In the dim light of the little restaurant Gavin’s pale skin looked rosier, warmer. The freckles scattered across his cheeks and nose blended in with Gavin’s slowly growing blush. He smiled shyly enough, sweetly enough, that it almost hid the wicked amusement in his eyes as Scully started singing a very improper sea shanty off tune.
Behind her the door opened and shut. Gavin’s eyes widened and he sat up straight, cheeks going abruptly pale as milk, so pale his freckles looked like splatters of mud across his face. Mari turned and frowned at finding Delbhana Danica standing there, staring at them.
“Y’eating?” Mari asked.
“I… intended to,” Danica said, cautious as if she expected Mari to pull a knife and attack her.
“Plenty of stools,” Mari said.
She waved to the four between Mari and the front of the restaurant while being desperately grateful that Gavin had chosen to sit against the far wall where Mari could keep him safe. Scully looked at Gavin, raised both eyebrows, looked at Mari so she shrugged and then turned to Danica, nodding for her to sit down.
“You want the usual?” Scully asked.
“Ah, yes, please, Scully,” Danica said. “Bump the spice up a notch. I’m trying to avoid the cold going around.”
“Two meals to cure the common cold coming up!” Scully laughed. “Quit eyeing each other like you’re about to fight, you two. Got more in common than you think you do.”
“You like spicy–?” Mari asked at the exact same time that Danica did. She laughed and waved off Danica’s apparently automatic glare of offense. “Didn’t think anyone in this city like their food to bite back. Good to know I’m not alone!”
Danica shook her head, laughing quietly. She reached across the counter and pulled down a mug. From her spot at the far end of the counter she could easily grab the kettle slowly simmering on the stove. Scully pushed a little tea tin her way so Danica measured out tea for herself, gesturing towards Mari and Gavin.
“Yes, please,” Gavin said.
“Sure,” Mari agreed.
Danica pulled two other mugs off, one solid and plain, the other decorated with a white flower in the clear glaze. Once she’d measured tea and added water, Danica passed the mugs down to Mari who passed the white flowered one to Gavin. He snorted and raised an eyebrow at both of them.
“I am not a frail flower,” Gavin declared.
“Nope, pocket beauty, that’s you,” Mari replied.
Danica laughed, eyes sparkling with amusement as Gavin huffed at Mari. “I wouldn’t disagree with you on that if weren’t for the fact that I’m only a couple of inches taller than Gavin.”
“Everybody’s short compared t’me,” Mari said, waving off Danica’s objection. “I can pick you up and move you around wi’out effort then you’re a pocket something. O’ course my little brother tends t’kick me in the gut when I try t’do it t’him.”
Gavin started snickering into his tea. Scully broke into belly laughs as he pulled a third handful of beef for the grill. Danica, for her part, blinked at Mari. Anger faded into amusement and then into laughter as she shook her head as if dismayed by Mari’s attempts to ease the tension between her and Gavin.
“He must have long legs,” Danica said.
“Nah, usually ends up kicking my arms instead,” Mari said happily, cheerful, with as much pride as she could shove into the words. “He’s a scrapper, that one. O’ course, we all tend to be fighters. Comes with the territory, I think. Mountains aren’t easy to live in.”
Danica nodded. Her expression was far more grim than Mari expected as she stared at the far wall of the restaurant as if it was a window on somewhere much farther way, somewhere very dangerous. Gavin shifted on his stool, one foot coming over to nudge against Mari’s shin warningly. She wasn’t sure what Gavin wanted to warn her about, other than the obvious implication that Danica had spent time in the western or maybe southern mountains, but Mari nodded slightly to reassure him.
“I suppose that’s why you get along well with the Dana,” Danica said, eyes still on whatever past she alone saw.
“Mm, think so, yes,” Mari said. “We’re both blunt, to the point, rude often. Just as likely to punch as we are to praise. Seems to be part of who we are, both Clans. Doesn’t seem like you Delbhana are that way.”
Danica burst out laughing, a cold, harsh laugh that held more fear than amusement. When Gavin nudged Mari’s ankle this time it was far more of a solid kick than a gentle discouragement to continue. Even Scully looked over his shoulder at Mari with an eyebrow raised as if to say ‘really?’
“We hide it better,” Danica said as she glared into her tea. “At least in public. But we’re twice as vicious as the Dana ever dreamed of being.”
“I take it Lady Etain was not fond of my counter-offer,” Gavin sighed.
“No, she was not,” Danica said. She looked at Scully who nodded before making twice as much noise at the grill as before. “I was told quite firmly that my ‘precious feelings’ were irrelevant to ‘the project’ and that I was to do my best to seduce you away from your Clan.”
“…I didn’t realize Siobhan got her particular brand of crazy from her mother,” Gavin said so mildly that Mari stared at him. “I thought that Lady Etain at least had some connection to reality.”
Danica’s head snapped up. She grinned like she was an entirely different person, wild and determined, so delighted in Gavin’s wit that Mari’s heart lurched. Scully cackled and banged his spatula that much louder against the grill.
“Missing something,” Mari commented.
“Oh… years of battles,” Danica sighed. “Battles and hatred and stupidity on both sides. Sometimes I think it’s all the Dana’s fault and then I look around my family and think no, we’re more to blame.”
“It’s both sides,” Gavin said. He set his tea down as he turned on his stool so that he could look at Danica squarely. “It started when Great-Uncle Jarmon refused a marriage alliance between our clans so that he could marry the love of his life. It’s continued onwards because of stupid pride and competition from everyone else.”
“Great-Aunt Vevina has always objected to the feud,” Danica said with a sad nod. “It was her mother and Etain’s branch that pushed it all along.”
Mari stared at Danica for a long moment, absently aware that Scully was doing his best to stretch out the preparation of their lunches. She turned and looked at Gavin. He was focused quite intently on Danica. It was almost as though Mari wasn’t in the restaurant with them.
Except that Gavin’s cheeks slowly went red again as Mari looked at him. His pulse became quite obvious at his throat and temple. A curl trembled and danced in time with his rapidly beating heart. Gavin smoothed his kilt down, plucking at the pleats as if they had to be absolutely perfect. He hadn’t done that until he noticed Mari looking at him.
“You prefer Mari,” Danica observed in a perfectly calm, perfectly flat voice.
“Yeah, but he’s dead serious about bein’ willing t’marry you,” Mari said. “I do got two other sisters. The feud costs a lot, doesn’t it? In time and money and aggravation.”
“I’d estimate that my Clan dedicates at least one eighth their money and time into… dealing with the Dana,” Danica agreed, still in that falsely calm voice. “I know the Dana do likewise, perhaps more.
“Then the question is what’s more important to you, Gavin,” Mari said. “Love or duty?”
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