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 gulped as Gavin’s expression went from determined to horrified in an instant. “No! It’s not that!”
He stepped back, the rosy blush that had covered his cheeks most of the time they’d talked to Jarmon fading into a sort of sickly paleness that reminded Mari of just how sick Gavin had been just a day or so ago. She reached out and caught Gavin’s hand, trying to keep him from running away entirely without using brute force to do it. Gavin smacked her hands away, looking down the hallway with that sick-to-his-stomach look.
“Really,” Mari insisted. “You’re beautiful an’ smart an’ I always have loved that. It’s got nothing t’do with you, honestly.”
“It’s you, not me,” Gavin sighed. He sounded as though he’d heard those words a million times before.
“Not at all,” Mari said. She smiled hesitantly when Gavin frowned up at her. “It’s the Delbhana, Gavin. I don’ like the thought o’ you bein’ forced t’do something y’don’ want to just t’get rid o’ them. It’s not ri’. Man shouldn’t have t’go t’such lengths just t’be left alone. They’re breaking all the rules of decency an’ their own regulations. An’ the law. It’s wrong. I just… don’ want you t’do something you’d regret.”
She trailed off as Gavin put one hand over his mouth. At first she thought he was even more horrified but then his shoulders started shaking as he laughed silently. The laughter went audible a few second later. Unlike Mari’s brays of laughter Gavin’s laughter was low and confident despite the roughness left behind from his cold.
Gavin shook his head at Mari, the hand eventually dropping away to reveal a brilliant grin. His teeth were as perfect as the rest of him, small and straight and strong, just like he was. As his chuckles stilled, Gavin reached out and grabbed the front of Mari’s shirt, hauling on it.
Mari automatically struggled but Gavin tugged harder, overbalancing Mari so that she had to bend or topple over on top of him. His other hand caught Mari’s hair, using it as a tether do drag her face to exactly where he wanted her. Their lips met with too much force, teeth clacking together, but it didn’t seem to bother Gavin. He rumbled deep in his chest as he kept his grip on Mari so that she couldn’t escape.
It wasn’t like any of Mari’s other kisses. Even the times when she’d kissed lovers during or after sex there hadn’t been the same sort of passion. They’d been companionable, sweet, shy. Gavin’s kiss was like facing a thunderstorm pouring down out of the high mountains, like standing on a cliff edge with the wind blowing up at you. He felt wild, strong, determined in ways that lit a fire in Mari’s gut.
Mari’s hands wrapped around Gavin’s waist, slid down to cup his rear end so that she could pull him close. He was so short that she lifted him up into her arms so that they could kiss more comfortably. Gavin moaned, the hand in Mari’s hair trembling abruptly though he didn’t let go. If anything he held on tight enough to pull hair loose.
“Short,” Mari murmured against Gavin’s lips.
He snorted and bit her bottom lip to keep her from saying anything else. His tongue brushed over Mari’s lips, jolting her into a moan that Gavin echoed. She rocked against Gavin’s fabric-muffled erection, losing her scruples more and more for every second that they spent kissing.
She’d never kissed a man who was this forceful. It had always been Mari pursing and the men resisting before. Gavin didn’t resist. He wrapped both arms around Mari’s neck, playing with her hair as he licked and coaxed Mari into opening her mouth. Once in, Gavin’s tongue gave her vivid ideas about just what he could do between her legs if she’d just give him a chance.
“Fuck!” Mari gasped, pulling back and panting.
“Come back here,” Gavin ordered as he tugged at her hair again.
“Every single one o’ you is dangerous,” Mari said. She grinned as he nodded solemnly. “Still not comfortable wi’ the thought o’ you bein’ forced into sex, y’know.”
“It’s not being forced,” Gavin said. He nuzzled Mari’s lips, laughing against her chin when Mari moaned and tilted her head away. “That’s not going to help.”
Mari nearly dropped Gavin when he bit her jaw, nibbling there before biting his way towards her neck. She shuddered, legs quivering as if she’d been hauling bales of hay up the stairs in her aunt’s stable. Gavin chuckled and then gasped as Mari’s hands spasmed around his back.
Hallway, this was a public hallway. They couldn’t be doing this where anyone could walk up. In the name of the Tripartate Goddesses, they were right next to Jarmon and Maeve’s door. Mari forced herself to set Gavin down, catching his face between her hands so that she could kiss him so deeply that she nearly swallowed his tongue. He swayed, hands clenching around the lapels of her vest, as he moaned into her mouth.
“Not goin’ t’ravish you ri’ next t’your great uncle’s door,” Mari muttered against Gavin’s lips. “Not. S’not proper. Or comfortable.”
Gavin snickered and smiled but his smile was a little sad as Mari pulled back slowly, standing back up to her full height. He didn’t let go of her lapels. She almost thought it was because his legs were shaking too hard. When Mari licked her lips Gavin shuddered and nodded, finally stepping back. His hands were still on her chest so Mari covered them with her hands, smiling at him.
“Still not a no,” Mari said. “Just think there’s got t’be a better way. Rather that the first time we do it, it’s for love. Or at least mutual lust.”
“I think we already have that,” Gavin said. His blush returned fully force as Mari squeezed his hands gently. “We definitely already have that. All right, fine. Let’s go find Mother and see what she has to say.”
Mari blushed as Gavin defiantly held out his hand for Mari’s. She gave it to him, grinning as his cheeks flared even brighter than hers had. It was strange, holding Gavin’s hand as he led her through the maze of second floor corridors with their mismatched shingle, brick and fine plaster walls. His hand was as small as Mari’s little brother, barely filling the palm of her hand, but it didn’t feel like a child’s hand at all.
His grip was strong enough to pull Mari off balance when she assumed they should go left and Gavin went right. He was strong enough to support her when Mari stumbled. This was a man, no doubt about that, full grown and just as certain of what he wanted as Mari was. The thought that she wouldn’t ever be the one making all the decisions if she married Gavin was strangely exhilarating. The other men she’d flirted with, bedded, had expected Mari to give all the orders. She was pretty sure Gavin would be giving orders of his own as soon as he got the chance.
“She should be in the warehouse,” Gavin said as he led Mari to yet another staircase that she’d never seen before. “There’s usually a crew meeting at this time of day for the on-coming afternoon shift of warehouse workers.”
“Y’work all night long?” Mari asked.
“Not always,” Gavin said with a little shrug, “but we just had a ship come in. That has to be sorted out and we’ll work until it’s done. Plus we’re expecting another ship in shortly so we need to be ready for it as well. We work as many shifts as we need when there’s a reason for it.”
Mari nodded. That made sense. Her family was the same way, working as much and as long as they had to when a caravan came in. The busy times were offset by periods of relatively little work where people could rest and go home to their husbands and children early in the day. It all evened out. Nice to see that the Dana lived much the same way even though they were stuck in the middle of Aingeal City.
Gavin paused at the top of the stairs. At first Mari thought it was to rebuild his nerves before cornering his mother but then she heard the shouts. They were far enough away that Mari couldn’t tell who was shouting or what they said but she recognized the sound of a fight half a step away from breaking out.
“Already?” Mari asked.
“I’m going to stab that woman in the neck,” Gavin growled.
“Go for the gut,” Mari said, moving in front of Gavin so that he’d be safer behind her. “Hurts more an’ less likely t’kill her outright. Lasts longer, too.”
“I want her dead,” Gavin growled.
When Mari looked over her shoulder at him Gavin glowered but his cheeks went red when she raised her eyebrows. A smile flitted over his lips for a second only to disappear as they heard the sound of fist against flesh echoing up the stairwell.
Mari ran. Gavin darted past her, kilts lifted high enough in his hands that she could see calves that looked like they were hard as a rock and one brief flash of a creamy white thigh that made her mouth go dry. Her arousal faded with every step that brought them closer to the shouting that had echoed up the stairwell.
Gavin skidded to a stop just before running straight into what looked like a brawl’s opening moments. Somehow they’d ended up on the side of the warehouse that fronted on the docks. The great double doors that opened onto the street were open, showing Dana blue sails and a small army of Dana sailors with makeshift weapons in their hands. The only reason Mari saw them was her height. Gavin had to see nothing through the press of Dana blue clad warehouse workers.
Closer in, a couple of yard away though it might as well be a thousand miles, Lady Etain’s blond head stood over the crowd. Mari craned her neck and spotted Danica next to her, face ruddy with rage. A shorter, broad red-haired woman stood in front of Lady Etain, fists raised to throw a punch.
“Yo!” Gavin bellowed.
It echoed so strongly that the women in front of them started and scrambled out of the way. Silence fell, murmuring threat-filled silence that felt as thunderous as a late summer day in the mountains when clouds billowed up from the plains, lighting sparking and flashing from their towering shapes.
“Go back inside, Gavin,” the short woman snarled.
“Gwen,” Gavin said.
That was all he said but it was enough to make Gwen’s shoulders go rock hard. They crept up and then sagged as Gwen lowered her fists and stepped aside. When she turned it was obvious that she was the one who’d gotten punched. Blood dripped from her nose and she had a black eye blooming already.
“Nice one,” Mari commented.
Gwen grinned. “Thanks. I was about to return the favor.”
“No, you weren’t,” Gavin snapped as he strode straight at Lady Etain.
Except that no, it wasn’t Lady Etain that Gavin aimed at. He bypassed her and went to look Danica over, apparently scanning for injuries. Danica laughed quietly and shrugged, waving one hand in front of her face as if to fan away an unpleasant smell. Mari came over as well, deliberately putting on her best saunter, the one Ma always described as insolence practicing to be downright insubordinate. Lady Etain stiffened just like Ma did, her eyebrows drawing down into a stormy glower.
“I’m fine,” Danica said. “Aunt Etain decided that Gwen had no right to keep us from talking to you.”
“Well, it’s already too late,” Gavin said, flicking an annoyed glance at Lady Etain before turning back to Danica. “Mari and I have agreed that we’re suited for each other. We’re going to do the marriage alliance.”
“No, you’re not!” Lady Etain shouted. “You’ll marry Danica or I’ll destroy the whole damned Dana Clan!”
She grabbed Gavin’s arm, hauling him around so that he had to face her. Mari shouted at the same time Danica and Gwen both did but none of them moved as fast as Gavin. He swept one foot out, catching Lady Etain’s ankle and knocking her off her feet at the same time as he jerked his arm free from her hand.
When Lady Etain rolled back to her feet Gavin swung a fist straight into her face, breaking her nose in a gush of blood and crunching bone that made Mari wince. Danica gasped. Gwen cheered, as did most of the surrounding Dana workers. A good number of them shouted for Gavin to hit Lady Etain again. Mari, on the other hand, dove in and grabbed Gavin around the waist, lifting him up and away before he could smash Lady Etain’s head into his knee or kick her in the throat. She wasn’t sure which move he’d intended.
“Put me down!” Gavin bellowed. “I’m going to smash her head in!”
“No, y’all are not,” Mari said while ducking elbows and kicking heels. “No’ gonna knife her either.”
“She needs to be knifed!” Gavin shouted but, thank the Goddesses, his struggles were weakening quickly.
“Don’ disagree wi’ you,” Mari said. “Really. She’s bein’ a pain in the rear end. Still no’ gonna kill her.”
The entire crowd was nearly silent as Mari carefully, cautiously, put Gavin back on his feet. She wasn’t sure why everyone stared, other than Gavin spectacularly losing his temper. At first she thought that Lady Etain’s glare was for her bloody nose and dusty jacket but no, she was glaring at Mari. Danica’s eyebrows had rising so high that they nearly brushed against her perfectly combed hair. When Mari turned to Gwen, she was grinning as she wagged her eyebrows.
“What?” Mari asked.
“What is that on your neck?” Lady Etain asked, icily angry despite the mushiness of her words and the blood pouring down her face to stain her lacy cravat.
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