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
Gavin stared at Mari, blood rushing in his ears like the beating of a barge’s drum as they fought to come into shore against a rip tide. Love or duty? The tea in his stomach tried to come back up. He swallowed it down as his hands started shaking around the mug. Thoughts tumbled incoherently, one after the other, images of his parents together, the way Lady Etain looked at him, first upraised, when he’d confronted her over Siobhan nearly kicking Anwyn to death. His old friends Brom and Doyle still weren’t the same and their brief stay with the Delbhana had been a decade ago.
Love or duty? Impossible. That wasn’t the real question. Gavin wouldn’t let it be. Duty was the alliance marriage to Mari while love was Danica’s love for him but no, he would view marrying Danica as pure duty and Mari, big, bold, caring Mari was all but created by the Goddesses for him to love.
His throat sealed up as Gavin tried to find any way to answer the question that wouldn’t further alienate Danica or drive Mari away. Right now he didn’t see a way to accomplish anything. Gavin curled in on himself, dropping his face into his hands.
“That’s not a question you spring on a man as young as Gavin,” Scully said. He chuckled as Gavin started violently. “It’s asked now, of course, but the answer will be weeks in coming. Give him time to sort it out. Young men in their prime are masses of instinct and hormones and, I tell you what, this is the first time in Gavin’s life that he’s actually faced down the fact that he’s not a reasonable woman with an inconvenient penis. He’s a man and he’s got a man’s emotional instability all the time instead of just a few days each month.”
“Scully!” Gavin groaned.
“It’s the truth,” Scully said. “No man under thirty has full control of his emotions. Most under sixty don’t. The Tripartate Goddesses themselves know that when I was your age I could barely walk down the street without have to fix the tilt of my kilt. It’s just the way the world works. Give him time, you two. You women can think things through logically with ease. Us men need a bit more time and gentle handling to get there.”
Mari chuckled and patted Gavin’s shoulder as he groaned. Across the counter, Danica’s lips twitched as if she wanted to break out laughing, but the twisting little smile was more sad and heartsick than amused. Gavin sighed, taking his suddenly complete lunch with a glare that Scully just snorted at.
More serious thoughts dissolved under Mari’s gasp of delight. She stared at the plate Scully gave her, picking it up to turn it left and right while beaming. Gavin wasn’t sure exactly what was so special about the meal. It was just a thick slice of bread, bought he knew up the street at the little bakery run by Gavin’s great-uncle Quigley, covered with shredded beef, Scully’s special sauce and fried vegetables. Yes, Scully had topped their sandwiches with a bit of shredded cheese, but they weren’t that special.
“Don’t even got t’taste it t’love it,” Mari declared. “Gonna tell my Pa about this an’ he’ll recreate it.”
“Well, eat it, don’t admire it,” Scully said as he passed them all forks to eat with.
Thick napkins appeared next, followed by mugs with milk. Gavin carefully tasted his, nodding that it was a little spicier than normal but not to the point that it burned his mouth and made his nose run. Mari tucked into her meal with gusto, taking big bites and then whining as the spice hit her.
Danica laughed, eating a bit more slowly but with the same enjoyment of having her food bite back. Both Mari and Danica’s eyes went red. Their cheeks flushed. Scully cackled as first Mari and then Danica sipped their milk only to eat more. Gavin shook his head, eating more slowly and carefully with plenty of milk.
“You’re both insane,” Gavin commented.
“It’s good,” Mari protested, sniffing and then wiping her nose on her napkin. “Really good. Damn, I didn’t expect t’get good food in town.”
“It’s an acquired taste,” Danica agreed, wiping her forehead, cheeks and eyes with her napkin. “I do believe that spicy food helps fend off colds. Something about the peppers and sweating it out.”
“Insane,” Gavin repeated.
They ate quietly after that, or at least Gavin did. Mari moaned as she ate and sucked air between her teeth between noisy sips of milk. Danica was a bit quieter but not by much. She gasped occasionally, smacking the counter with one fist whenever the heat of her meal got to be too much.
Gavin sat and laughed into his nearly cold tea when both Mari and Danica ordered seconds. He was fairly certain that they’d descended into competition by the time they panted over the last handful of bites but at least it was companionable competition instead of the more vicious battles he was used to with the Delbhana.
“Two more t’go,” Mari told Scully.
“You’re not eating more,” Danica said, her eyes wide and red-rimmed. She’d sweated enough that her perfectly styled hair had relaxed into increasingly wild waves.
“Nah, I’m full,” Mari said. Her lips were swollen but she still smiled as if it was the best meal she’d ever eaten. “Want t’bring ’em back for my sisters. Both sick so it’ll do ’em some good.”
“Ah,” Danica said, nodding. “You should get some of the fry bread, too. It’s quite tasty. Scully puts peppers in it.”
Mari turned, eyes wide and mouth dropping open in one of her huge smiles. She held out a hand and Scully laughed long and hard as he pulled a piece out of one of the warming pans in the oven. He offered pieces to both Danica and Gavin but Gavin shook his head no. Danica took it, absently soaking up the sauce from her plate before biting in.
Gavin laughed as Mari studied the vaguely triangle shaped bit of fry bread. Tiny rings of dark green marked the sweet green peppers. He could see bits of red pepper as well, plus tiny lumps that he knew from experience were hot pepper seeds. Mari shrugged and took a bite, wheezing as she chewed and then drank all of her remaining milk.
“That, yes,” Mari gasped. “Oh my, milk?”
“You got it,” Scully said. He snickered at Danica’s tearing eyes and Mari’s gasps as they ate their pieces of bread. “You two get sick from this it’s your own fault.”
“Mm, no, not sick,” Danica chuckled. “Not after this meal.”
“So worth it if does happen,” Mari mumbled.
Her eyes were half shut, blissfully watering, as she slowly chewed the fry bread. Gavin watched her, raising one eyebrow at Danica who shrugged as if she didn’t understand what the problem was. When Gavin turned to Scully he just grinned, obviously proud of his handiwork. Scully turned back to his grill, humming the Dancing Gull under his breath as he worked.
“If I’d known this place was here,” Mari said once she finished her bread and started slowly sipping her milk, “I’d have eaten here every meal I could years ago. Damn fine food.”
“Frankly, the food is about the only reason I ever came around here,” Danica admitted, eyes locked on her mug of milk. “At least at first.”
“I don’t even know when this became a thing,” Gavin complained. “We’ve barely ever talked, Danica.”
“True,” Danica said. She brushed one hand over her hair, looking disgusted that it was starting to curl. “Damn, should have brought a comb.”
Mari turned to look at Gavin who barked a laugh. He shook his head no and shrugged.
“I don’t use combs unless my hair is soaking wet, Mari,” Gavin explained. “Curly hair is very fragile and needs special care. The only time I’ll comb it out is when I’ve just washed it. Otherwise I use my fingers to manage it. Brushing just makes my hair go frizzy.”
“Or break off,” Danica agreed. “I work hard to straighten my hair but it just won’t grow very long at all before it becomes unmanageable.”
Gavin opened his mouth to ask why Danica would bother with that, closing it a moment later. Curly hair was a Dana thing. Everyone in the city knew that if they saw a curly redhead it was likely to be a Dana. Given the feud between the Delbhana and the Dana, Danica probably had been teased unmercifully about having curly hair since she was a very small child.
Mari opened her mouth, starting at Gavin’s firm nudge to her shin. She rolled her eyes, flapping one sauce-stained hand at him. The angry, brittle look that Gavin was more familiar with reappeared in Danica’s eyes as she sat up straighter and glared at Mari.
“Oughta just shave your head,” Mari said. She grinned at the way Danica blinked at her. “Looks t’me like you got a face that’d do well with shaved hair. No reason to wear it long if it bothers you.”
“This coming from a woman who wears her hair in an almost masculine style,” Danica said, once more dry and amused despite her red eyes and runny nose.
“That, that’s just traveling,” Mari said. “Haven’t taken the time to chop it off is all.”
“I like it. It looks very soft,” Gavin said and then squawked and stared into his empty tea mug when he realized that he’d spoken out loud.
He could feel Mari and Danica staring at him, not that Gavin had any intention of looking up. Scully cackled at the grill as he pulled out a loaf of bread and sliced four pieces off. The sound of his tearing two big swathes of brown paper felt incredibly loud in his little restaurant but that probably was Gavin overreacting to embarrassing himself.
This time when Scully constructed the meals he sandwiched the meat, vegetables, and cheese between slices of bread. Mari hummed thoughtfully as Scully wrapped them up in neat packages, using a Chinwenduese folding technique to secure the ends so that they wouldn’t come unwrapped while being carried.
“Thank you,” Mari said. “Appreciate it. What do I owe you?”
“I’ll cover it,” Gavin said. “You’re guesting with us as part of the negotiations. We can roll it into the first payment.”
“You sure?” Mari asked. “Don’t want you to get in trouble for it if it’s not a normal thing t’do.”
Danica and Scully both stared at Mari. Gavin stared too. He’d never made that sort of offer to a woman before without her protesting that it was a woman’s place to pay for things. Even Gwen and Raelin objected when Gavin picked up the bill during family outings.
But the thought that it was somehow an affront to Mari’s dignity didn’t seem to occur to her. She frowned at Gavin as if the only thing that she would object to was him spending money he might not have. After a moment she blinked and slowly turned, jerking a little as she saw that both Danica and Scully were staring.
“What?” Mari asked.
“I’m… surprised,” Danica said.
“Agreed,” Scully said as he crossed his arms over his chest and frowned at her.
“Why?” Mari patted her chest and lap, apparently looking for spilled sauce.
Gavin laughed and shook his head at her. “Mari, I’ve never made that offer to a woman, even a Dana woman, without her snapping my head off and saying that she could cover for my meal. Even though there is this thing called an expenses account that gets charged for meals out with clients, suppliers and other business related people. It still offends them that a man would offer to pay for a woman’s meal.”
“Well, that’s dumb.” Mari snorted, picking up the sandwiches carefully. “I was just worried that you’d get in trouble for doin’ it wi’out permission. You did invite me over here, after all.”
Danica leaned on the counter, head slowly tipping to the side as a grin bloomed on her face. She looked at Gavin, beautiful with her wicked amusement and suddenly obvious intelligence. He’d never seen Danica so open before. Every time he’d interacted with her, she’d been as stiff and controlled as her perfectly groomed hair. Gavin’s heart thumped against his chest as he realized that this was a person he could interact with.
This Danica, the one who grinned like a knife fight in the offing, who smirked and laughed, who looked with respect at a woman who was her direct rival for Gavin’s hand, this Danica was one he could care about. Perhaps even love, if given time and the freedom for Danica to be herself.
“Are you absolutely sure she isn’t Dana?” Danica asked. “That’s the sort of thing I’d expect out of Raelin or Anwyn.”
“Oh goodness!” Gavin gasped, laughing. “Raelin lets everyone else pay for her meals and Annie couldn’t care less what gender someone is as long as she gets free food.”
“Just good common sense,” Mari protested with a sudden blush. “Should get these back to my sisters before they get cold. Thank you, Scully. I think you’ll be seein’ a lot o’ us, our crew too, once I point ’em in your direction.”
“You’re all welcome,” Scully said with a grand gesture towards his tiny kitchen, as if it was as big as a banquet hall. “Everyone’s welcome, just as long as they don’t throw up on the floor and they pay their bill. I’ll send the bill over this afternoon, Gavin.”
He took the coins that Danica slid across the counter, tucking them away before gathering up their mugs and plates. Danica left first, of course. There wasn’t enough room for them to get past her. Mari went next, edging sideways with the sandwiches held high in the air so that she didn’t knock anything over.
Gavin took a deep breath, slipped off the stool and gathered his kilts in both hands. This certainly wasn’t what he’d expected for lunch but… Maybe it was good. It didn’t make his decision any easier. Before he’d seen this side of Danica the decision was a simple one. Now he wasn’t as sure. Somehow he did have to sort this out but at the moment Gavin had no idea what he was going to do.
Find This Book:
I love writing. I love sharing my writing. I hope that you love reading what I share. If you enjoyed the story but can’t afford to buy the book please consider leaving a donation. It will help me keep writing and sharing my stories with you for a long time to come. Thank you!