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
22. Good Advice
Gavin took a deep breath, his wrist aching where Uncle Jarmon gripped it. No matter how sick Uncle Jarmon was he obviously hadn’t lost the power that had always marked him. Letting the breath out slowly did nothing to calm the rage percolating in Gavin’s heart. He didn’t look up at Mari who shifted her feet and fidgeted behind Gavin like any Dana daughter called to task for yet another inappropriate brawl.
“What did they do?” Gavin asked. He couldn’t help the rage and warning in his voice, didn’t even try to mitigate it even though Uncle Jarmon was obviously unwell.
“Gavin, he’s sick,” Mari scolded him very mildly. She squeaked and stepped back when he turned to glare up at her. “A’ri’, shutting my mouth. Ri’ now.”
“Delbhana Vevina sent a letter,” Uncle Jarmon said, nodding towards his beloved bedside crate, the first thing Great Aunt Maeve had ever made him. “Etain has decided that the laws don’t matter. Her own regulations don’t matter. The only thing that matters is stealing you from us.”
“I need to go get my knives,” Gavin said, his voice distant and furious in ways he wasn’t hearing from himself.
Uncle Jarmon’s grip on his wrist tightened enough that Gavin knew he’d have a bruise. Even at eighty years old Jarmon’s strength was legendary in the family. The man could carry as much as Gavin even now. Still, Gavin knew that he could break free. He could go get his knives. He could stab that vicious mad abusive woman in the throat…
And then he’d go to jail and the rest of the clan would be destroyed.
“I don’ think stabbing her is a good idea,” Mari said. “An’ what’s wi’ this stealing thing? Gavin’s a grown man. Unless she’s kidnapping him she can’t make him do a damn thing. Can she?”
“There is a great deal that she could do,” Uncle Jarmon said. “Taxes, regulations, directly attacking our ships and our family members on the high seas. There is a plot currently against Anwyn, Gavin’s sister. Etain has something of a grudge against the family, Anwyn in particular. Taking away Anwyn’s older brother would be a huge success in Etain’s mind, I believe.”
“She called Lady Etain’s daughter Siobhan a scaredy-baby liar-pants when they were little and neither Lady Etain nor Siobhan have ever forgiven her for it,” Gavin explained to Mari. She snickered. “The last we heard the plot against Annie was failing. She should be back in the next few days, after all.”
“True,” Uncle Jarmon said. “That’s why Etain is rushing this. Her precious plans have fallen apart around her and you’re her backup plan.”
Gavin growled, jerking his wrist out of Uncle Jarmon’s grip. He stood, pacing the few feet between the bed and the far wall where Aunt Maeve had created a concealed closet after Uncle Jarmon had complained one too many times about clothes spilling out into the room. The normally spacious bedroom felt cramped. Walls kept appearing around Gavin, blocking him from doing what he wanted, what he needed to do. Lady Etain’s determination was only the most obvious manifestation of it. His duties for the clan would be a relief once Gavin was allowed to get back to them.
Mari watched, still fidgeting, still clearly nervous. Uncle Jarmon, on the other hand, settled back into his pillows like a snake waiting to strike. His head barely moved though Gavin could see Uncle Jarmon’s eyes sliding back and forth as he watched Gavin pace.
“There is no plan!” Gavin complained finally. “What can she do? I say no, it’s over. Mother will back me. The whole Clan will back me. She can’t have anything strong enough to threaten me into doing what she wants.”
“Reading between the lines,” Uncle Jarmon said only to pause as he coughed, loud and wetter than Gavin liked. “Damn cold. Reading between the lines, Vevina seemed to imply that Etain’s perfectly prepared to threaten to destroy the clan.”
Gavin snorted and dismissed that with an irritable wave. “She’s tried that before. Multiple times.”
“How?” Mari asked. “Clan like this, how can she destroy it? Both o’ you know what’s happened. I don’t.”
Gavin looked to Uncle Jarmon. He snorted and shrugged, flicking his fingers at Gavin that it was his responsibility to explain this. Uncle Jarmon smirked when Gavin glared at him, folding his hands serenely over his stomach and smiling as if he had every confidence in Gavin’s ability to explain sixty years of feuding in two or three sentences.
“There’s too much,” Gavin said and rolled his eyes at the way Uncle Jarmon cleared his throat dramatically. “Stop that. Sixty years can’t be summed up easily. Lady Etain’s particular plots have involved trying to steal our ships semi-legally, trying to get Anwyn arrested for assault when her ribs had been kicked in by Etain’s daughter Siobhan and, oh goodness, a dozen other things. When I was fourteen she tried to legally steal all the kids, make them wards of the state. Raelin blocked that one. It’s been an on-going thing and every single time she’s failed.”
“Ah, dreams too big,” Mari said, nodding as if her comment made any sense. She blinked as both Gavin and Uncle Jarmon stared at her, shrugging sheepishly. “Jus’ meant that she makes huge plans t’wipe the clan out all at once when she should be tryin’ little things that eat away bit by bit.”
“That would be harder to fight,” Uncle Jarmon said, grim, eyebrows drawn down into a ferocious glower. “Don’t mention it outside of this suite. It would get back to Etain somehow and the few sane members of Delbhana wouldn’t be able to stop her.”
“Danica is one of the sane ones, isn’t she?” Gavin asked, finally standing still.
Uncle Jarmon’s sigh was a quiet thing in the bedroom. With such little light Gavin couldn’t really see the expression in his eyes but the shadows cast across his face looked terribly sad. Gavin ran his hands over his hips, smoothing his kilt as he tried to calm himself. No matter how angry he was, Gavin couldn’t afford to make mistakes when he confronted Lady Etain.
And he would confront her. That was inevitable. Gavin could feel it coming, almost smell it like the sharper scent of salt that came when a storm swept up the bay towards the city. With the colds that they’d been battling, Gavin hadn’t paid as much attention as normal to the city’s politics. Even so, something big was brewing. Lady Etain wouldn’t be so desperate if there wasn’t a huge disaster coming their way.
The only question was whether it would be the Delbhana or the Dana who crashed against the rocks this time.
“I think she is,” Uncle Jarmon murmured sadly. “Her mother is too weak-willed to challenge Etain. Vevina’s too old now. She’s lost power, especially since Siobhan married the Prince. Etain’s star is rising. They have the prince, the throne, in their hands. She must believe nothing can challenge her now.”
“Damn that woman to the Morrigan’s deepest Hell,” Gavin complained.
He came back over and sat on the edge of the bed, snorting at the horrified expression on Mari’s face. As if Mother didn’t say that exact curse all the time. Mari had to have heard it. Gavin’s cheek’s still heated but he sternly ignored them in the hopes that the blush would fade more quickly that way.
The problem was that Gavin didn’t see how he could get rid of Lady Etain for good. She’d keep coming after him until she wore him down from sheer aggravation. If Gavin was female then Lady Etain might listen to him but Gavin wasn’t. He was male and thus his word would never hold the same weight as a woman’s. Possibly the only way she’d go away was if Gavin was ‘ruined’, as ridiculous as that thought was.
Gavin blinked several times as the thought turned over in his head. He stared up at Mari who frowned and then gently put a hand on Gavin’s shoulder as if concerned for him. Uncle Jarmon made a curious sound, half grunt, half cough, as he sat up a bit straighter.
“We want her to go away, yes?” Gavin said.
“Well, yeah,” Mari said.
“The Delbhana believe that nonsense about sex ‘ruining’ a man, don’t they?” Gavin asked Uncle Jarmon.
He snorted and nodded, a wicked grin stretching across his face. “Oh yes. That’s how I won my Maeve, you know. Dragged her off into a coat room and ah, made her noisy enough that people came and caught us together. That was fun. Used to make a point of doing it every time we went to a party. Vevina always laughed and asked Maeve if she could borrow me to sire a few children for her. Of course, Maeve never did give permission but we always enjoyed discussing it in loud voices when Vevina’s family lurked around us.”
Gavin choked, waving his hands to stop the flow of words, not that it worked. “Please, I don’t need that sort of detail! Lady Etain believes it?”
“You’ve been to Court,” Uncle Jarmon said with a disgusted little grunt. “They’re all idiots, acting like a man touching a woman’s privates somehow changes him fundamentally. The woman ‘consumes’ his virginity, ‘taking’ it from him. Ridiculous but they all swallowed that bilge years ago. You thinking of dragging Mari off to follow in my footsteps? I’d recommend it, honestly. Best to know if you’re compatible in bed before the wedding. Nothing sadder than a marriage breaking up because the couple doesn’t have the same needs sexually.”
“Uncle Jarmon, please,” Gavin whined.
His blush felt like a thing alive, consuming his cheeks, ears, and creeping down his neck. The worn old bedroom with its frugal patchwork quilts felt twice as hot as before. Mari laughed, patting Gavin’s back and grinning as if she had decided that she liked Uncle Jarmon instead of being afraid of him. Truly, Gavin could understand being afraid of Uncle Jarmon. He was terribly intimidating, wise and so well educated in the laws and regulations of Aingeal and their shipping partners that Gavin couldn’t remember him ever making a mistake filling out paperwork.
“Fine,” Uncle Jarmon sighed. “Don’t be sensible. Don’t take the easiest path. Go find that cliff and climb it with your bare fingernails.”
“I heard that!” Aunt Maeve shouted from the kitchen. “It was only once and I had to rescue that trapped child. Will you let it go?”
“Never!” Uncle Jarmon shouted back but he was grinning widely, eyes sparkling in the darkness with something very like glee.
Mari laughed harder, hooting and wheezing at the two of them. Rather than stay and listen to Uncle Jarmon and Aunt Maeve flirt with their mock fighting, Gavin threw up his hands and stood. Uncle Jarmon grinned and flicked his fingertips at both of them, shooing them from the room just as Aunt Maeve stomped in with a tray that held Uncle Jarmon’s favorite lemon-cinnamon rolls, thick honey-clove tea and a thoroughly out of place roast beef sandwich that Uncle Jarmon would never eat.
He tugged Mari out of the bedroom and then out into the narrow hallway. No one was outside, lurking in the hallway. Because of the way this area had been built, sound didn’t carry very far. The shingles seemed to absorb sound as long as you didn’t shout. That meant that they could have a private conversation, more private than almost anywhere else in the Clan house, but it also meant that someone could walk up and interrupt them and Gavin wouldn’t hear them coming.
“I like your family,” Mari said, still chuckling.
“I’m glad,” Gavin said. “Because I’m seriously considering climbing you like a tree when Lady Etain comes over, just to make her leave me alone.”
He didn’t meet Mari’s eyes. Even though the temptation was very strong to do something blatantly sexual with Mari, both because she was gorgeous and because it would probably make Lady Etain go away, Gavin couldn’t help but be embarrassed. Mother had always made it clear to Gavin and his brothers that there was nothing wrong with them wanting and enjoying sex. While Cadfael was young enough that the thought of sex was still disgusting to him, Aravel had leaped straight into sexual maturity and never looked back.
Gavin had held back even as he reached full adulthood. He’d been too busy with work, too bored by the women he’d met who were too rich or too forward or too something every time the possibility came up. Now though, things were different. The thought of getting to touch Mari, being not only allowed but encouraged to hug, to kiss and to climb between those gorgeous thighs, made his heart beat too fast. His stomach quivered with nerves as Gavin’s blush crept back over his face and down his neck. He managed to look up, meeting Mari’s eyes, only to freeze.
“You don’t want to?” Gavin asked, the quivers turning into a horrified lump in his belly.
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