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’s heart beat so hard that she would have sworn she’d just hauled a barrel of beets up a fifty foot cliff by herself. She shouldn’t have asked. It was enough that Gavin was willing to go through with the marriage alliance. Asking for more, for a real marriage, one where they loved each other and had sex together, was too much.
But she couldn’t be sorry for asking. Not when Gavin stared at her, eyes wide and naked, filling with shock and something that Mari wanted to identify as hope. If he wanted her half as much as she wanted him then it would work.
Better than work, Mari was pretty sure they’d be one of those romances people sighed over and wrote silly songs about. She’d spent her life teasing Paili for being a soft hearted fool who fell in love at the drop of a handkerchief but here she was staring at a man she’d only met, what? One day ago? Two? Mari couldn’t believe she hadn’t known Gavin all her life by this point. She couldn’t imagine not seeing him and talking to him ever again.
“Um,” Gavin started to say only to shove his shaking hands into his lap.
He wouldn’t meet her eyes. The blush was like a living thing, creeping outwards from his cheeks to consume his entire face, then his ears, before crawling down his neck under his high jacket collar. It took a moment for Mari to realize that she’d seen Paili’s lovers hold their hands just like that every time she gave them inappropriate erections.
“Ah, sorry?” Mari squeaked, looking away.
“No, no, not your fault,” Gavin said. “Though really, those pants ought to be illegal. They’re basically pornographic.”
Mari looked at her oldest pair of pants, the ones she’d put on specifically because getting them wet while helping Banba and Caer bathe wouldn’t hurt them. It took her a moment to realize that they really were tight. Very tight. Extremely tight, especially around her thighs and crotch.
“Ah, damn,” Mari groaned. “Didn’t realize they’d shrunk in the last wash.”
Gavin swallowed down a noise that Mari suspected was either the start of a giggle fit or an aborted moan. She wasn’t quite sure what to say. Or do. Paili was the one who knew how to romance men. Caer didn’t do too badly, either, though she wasn’t so determined to get under the kilt of every man she saw.
Frankly, Mari wasn’t entirely certain how one went about romancing a man. There was supposed to be flowers, she thought. Presents. Maybe sweet treats or embroidery thread or yarn or something. Paili always seemed to know just where to get such things and Caer kept an eye out for trinkets, too.
She rubbed the back of her neck, tugging at the too-long hair there. “I ah, I’m not good at romantic things, honestly.”
“I’d probably have to hit you if you tried to be romantic,” Gavin said, still not meeting Mari’s eyes but smiling now instead of just looking uncomfortable.
“No presents?” Mari asked.
“Presents,” Gavin said. He finally met her eyes, blinking repeatedly. “Presents? What sort of presents are we talking about?”
“Paili and Caer get little pretty things, trinkets, jewelry, embroidery silk or yarn, for their guys,” Mari said.
Gavin shuddered. “I don’t like wearing jewelry. It makes my skin itch. Trinkets just take up space I don’t have. I’d give the silk to Caddie, who loves embroidery and would use it, and the yarn to Aravel, who knits as much as he breathes. So no. Certainly not. And no flowers, either. Ridiculous waste of money to buy cut flowers. They just die.”
He fidgeted in his chair, looking away as his kilt shifted enough to reveal the outlines of a very nice erection indeed. Mari looked away at that, letting Gavin arrange himself so that it didn’t show. No need to make him more uncomfortable even though Mari couldn’t help but imagine getting to touch, to kiss, maybe to play with him a bit.
“Food?” Mari asked. “Y’know, pastries or muffins or those fancy little cakes with mile-high frosting that people spend so much money on.”
“If you must,” Gavin sighed, “lemons.” He grinned when Mari stared at him with her mouth dropped open. “I like lemonade. And lemon-honey tea. And lemon preserves. Actually, preserves are always good.”
“Strawberry-rhubarb preserves?” Mari asked as enthusiastically as she could just to see what Gavin would say.
He laughed and nodded encouragingly. “I do like those though I prefer rhubarb in pies. How about kitchens? What’s your perfect kitchen?”
Mari leaned back in her chair, careful of the shelves stacked high with books and records. Her cheeks ached. It took a moment for her to realize that it was because she was grinning so widely. Gavin smiled too, smaller and shyer, but with laughter dancing in his green eyes. When he brushed a curl away from his forehead Mari’s heart skipped a beat. He really was entirely too beautiful for her self-control.
“Nothing fancy,” Mari said. “Presuming you mean here, I’d want one that works f’you. Big sink, o’ course, maybe two basins. One for washing, one for rinsing. Always did like open selves instead o’ cabinets. Big stove. Water pump like your Pa has, that’s necessary. Big pantry is good. Wood, lots o’ wood. Maybe chopping block counters? Easy t’take care of, y’know.”
“I like that thought,” Gavin said slowly as his eyes went distant as if he was visualizing it. “I’ve considered seeing if I could get a private bath but the weight might be more than the structure of the Clan house could handle.”
“Mm, an’ a place t’wash laundry,” Mari agreed. “Must be a bother t’have t’go somewhere else with laundry every damned time. Pa loves his laundry area. All the men in town are jealous o’ it.”
They both started as someone knocked firmly on Gavin’s door. Mari swallowed hard as she realized that they were completely alone in the little room. Yeah, it was tiny, too tiny to allow anything to happen but they were still alone. Not to mention Gavin’s erection and Mari’s fierce blush. People would inevitably realize that something was going on between them.
“Go away!” Gavin bellowed at the door.
Mari burst out laughing. “Now, don’ do that! They’ll want t’break the door down.”
“They do and I’ll make them fix it and do my paperwork,” Gavin said more than loudly enough for whoever it was in the hallway to hear them.
“Ah,” Laoise called from the other side, “I thought you might want to know that Uncle Jarmon wants to talk to you. Both of you.”
“Oh for…!” Gavin snarled as he unlatched the door and shoved it halfway open.
Mari caught the edge and pulled it the rest of the way back into its slot inside the wall, surprised at how heavy the thing was. It didn’t slide easily either. She squirmed a little at what that said about Gavin’s strength. Somehow, knowing for a fact that he wasn’t a weak, frail flower of a man made heat bloom in her gut. She’d have thought he’d struggle with the door especially as sick as he was currently.
“What did the Delbhana do this time?” Gavin demanded.
When he stood the petticoats supporting his kilt almost entirely obscured his rapidly fading erection. Mari didn’t let her eyes rest there. She also didn’t stand up until Gavin slipped out of his tiny office. Once he was out of the way she carefully eased her way out, doing her best not to knock anything over, especially the stacks of paperwork waiting for Gavin’s pen.
“I don’t know,” Laoise sighed. “Uncle Jarmon’s message just said that he wanted to talk to the two of you. Given everything I thought you’d want to talk to him right away.”
“We should,” Gavin agreed even though he scrubbed his face with both hands. “Damn it. Why do they have to keep trying this nonsense?”
“Pride,” Mari said, grinning when both Gavin and Laoise started as if they’d forgotten she was standing there. “Don’ know how y’could forget me. Not like I’m small an’ inconspicuous.”
Laoise spluttered and laughed while Gavin grinned up at Mari. His eyes tracked from her crotch to her breasts and then to her face. She wagged her eyebrows at him, laughing when he snapped his head around and clasped both hands strategically over his groin.
“We should get going,” Gavin exclaimed as he strode down the hallway. Mari thought it was towards the formal entrance to the Clan house but she wasn’t sure.
“Hmm?” Laoise murmured, raising one eyebrow at Mari.
“Pants shrank in the last wash,” Mari muttered.
Laoise’s eyes snapped to Mari’s crotch. She burst into laughter that echoed through the hallway. Her slap against Mari’s back was strong enough to make her stagger as she hurried after Gavin. Fortunately for both Gavin and Mari’s blushes, Laoise didn’t follow them. Mari wasn’t sure what she’d say if Laoise had followed. How did you explain that you were sort of, a little, maybe in the process of seducing a woman’s son? Wasn’t like Paili ever admitted it until she’d gotten caught and Caer’s romances were all casual.
Great Uncle Jarmon, the mysterious elder that Mari had yet to meet, lived on the second floor. Mari followed Gavin up a small set of stairs that she hadn’t realized were there until Gavin turned and started up them. They were steep enough that it was more like climbing a ladder.
Gavin scampered up them without pause, gifting Mari with swift glimpses of his strong ankles and calves that looked like they were hard as a rock, every muscle clearly defined under those demure cream socks. He dropped his kilts once at the top but not as quickly as Mari would have expected. When she grinned, Gavin snorted and shook his head sharply.
“Uncle Jarmon’s rooms are this way,” Gavin said.
“Don’ know how y’all find your way around this place,” Mari sighed.
“We grew up here,” Gavin replied, striding confidently off to the left through hallways that were half the width of the one outside of Mari’s suite. “The kids play hide and seek in the house because there are so many hiding places.”
“No’ surprised by that,” Mari muttered.
There was a distinct difference between this hall and the one leading to the suite. It was like the difference between a main thoroughfare and a tiny alley tucked between two buildings that nearly touched. Mari blinked as she realized that the right wall had shingles as if it was supposed to be outside. She ran a finger over the wall, frowning.
“We built the Clan house bit by bit,” Gavin explained. “Where we’re walking used to be the roof of the original warehouse back when Uncle Jarmon was my age. His wife Maeve built the first addition on the top of the roof when they married. Everyone else has followed suit over the years.”
“Explains why I can’t find my way around,” Mari said. She shrugged and chuckled as Gavin raised an eyebrow at her. “Not used t’buildings wi’ no plan.”
“Point,” Gavin conceded.
He turned right at the next intersection, leading Mari to a door that looked as though it had seen a pretty huge amount of weather over the years before it had been enclosed. The cheerful red paint had worn around the Dana carving at the center of the door, exposing pale blond wood. The brass knocker was polished and bright from decades of people knocking with it. Gavin knocked twice and then opened the door without waiting for a reply.
“Uncle Jarmon?” Gavin called. “We’re here.”
Inside, the suite looked more like an actual home than Mari had seen yet in the Clanhouse. There were windows, covered with drapes that Mari was pretty sure had to be fake. The suite was in the very middle of the Clan house so those no longer looked at the outside world. Jarmon’s tastes apparently ran towards sturdy Dana fabric covering fat chairs with heavily embroidered hassocks from Chinwendu. The rug was in shades of blue and white, too.
The kitchen had open shelves covered with a sea of blue and white bowls, mugs and plates that made Mari’s heart ache for home. Her Pa would love to look at each one to see what the potter had painted into the glaze. Unlike the rest of the Clan house, there wasn’t much stink of soup and liniment. Instead she smelled cinnamon and cloves, citrus of some sort, and yeast thick in the air.
The one occupant to the room wasn’t immediately obvious. She lounged on a deep blue chair, her dark Dana blue pants and shirt blending in so well that it wasn’t until she moved, standing to stare at Mari, that Mari noticed her. Her hair was short, no more than a finger’s width long, and had gone steel-gray some time ago. Wrinkles crisscrossed her leathery face but her ice blue eyes were sharp and alert as a woman Mari’s age.
“Back in the bedroom,” she said. She eyed Mari and then nodded approvingly. “Not bad. Better than I expected.”
“Ah, thank you?” Mari said.
“Aunt Maeve,” Gavin groaned. “Stop it!”
“You’re replicating our lives, just so you know,” Maeve said. She seemed entirely serious. “We’re the start of the whole feud. You need to be careful so that you don’t make it worse.”
“Do my best,” Mari said. Her stomach flopped so badly that she had to swallow down the acid from lunch while breathing deeply. Making things worse for Gavin wasn’t what Mari wanted, no matter how much she liked him.
Gavin shook his head at Maeve, striding into what had to be a bedroom without waiting for permission. Mari hesitated until Maeve nodded and flapped a hand at her to follow him. It felt wrong to invade another woman’s house, especially when they hadn’t been properly introduced. Hopefully once this interview was over.
The bedroom was actually several rooms, an office off to the right, a tiny bathroom that looked incredibly efficient to Mari if far too small for her to fit in, and then a big bedroom with a bed wide and long enough that Mari could share it with all three of her sisters without any problems. The blue and white theme extended in here too. All the quilts on the bed were blue and white, patched together from rags and old bits of Dana plaid. Mari smiled at them, her nervousness falling just from seeing such comforting old quilts.
Only one little oil lamp lit the room. It sat on a bedside table that looked like it had started out as a packing crate years ago. Mari couldn’t see much else in the room besides the lamp, the quilts, Gavin sitting on the edge of the bed next to what Mari thought was a stack of pillows until it moved.
“Oh,” Mari said, blushing when Gavin frowned at her. “Dark in here. Didn’t see him until he moved.”
“She’s lovely,” Jarmon whispered. His voice was rough, harsh from the cold he had apparently caught. “You like her?”
“Um, yes,” Gavin admitted like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “I think it will work between us.”
Jarmon nodded, his face wrinkling even more as he smiled up at Mari. The wrinkles spread up over his bald head. He was so delicate, like a fragile baby bird in its nest waiting for Pa to come home with food. His hand slipped over to grip Gavin’s wrist, the fingers twisted and impossibly ink-stained despite his condition.
“Then fight for each other,” Jarmon said. “Don’t let the Delbhana manipulate you into giving up on what you could have.”
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