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The steaming scent of cloves and ginger sprinkled on her latest brew brought Cristiana none of the usual pleasure. She breathed in the fragrant bouquet wafting over the boiling honey and water, testing for the right mix of heat and herbs to her most popular mead. But although the balance smelled fine now, she feared this batch would be bitter in the end. In her experience, the best meads were brewed when her heart was light and, right now, worry weighed her down more heavily than the ice-coated fur she'd worn outside into the storm.
The presence of an enemy under her roof had not been far from her mind this past hour as she'd hastened to oversee final preparations for an elaborate meal. She had to run the keep for her invalid father while maintaining the duties of a lady, since her mother had died many years ago and her sister had been sent far away after being ruined by Duncan the Brave's callous kin.
How dare he call upon her now after siding with his brutish half brother? Cristiana would be hard-pressed to hide her secret from Duncan while he took shelter here.
Stirring the bubbling mead mixture one last time, Cristiana left the squat brewery tower her father had built to encourage his daughter's gift. He had tried to dissuade her from mead-making for years, declaring the interest to be the purview of lesser men's daughters. But when the lords of the realm began requesting it for purchase and foreign kings sent gifts to obtain a small store, her sire had seen the wisdom of indulging her.
Now she raced through the keep to attend her guests, knowing she would not have time to change before the meal. It had been all she could do to hide the evidence of her secret from her new visitor and his men. The preparations had been hasty and not as thorough as she would have liked, but her temporary arrangements would hold at least until after they supped.
The New Year's feast had always been celebrated at Domhnaill with great festivity, and Cristiana could not afford any changes in routine that would hint at her family's struggles.
Wiping her brow of the perspiration accumulated from her dash to the great hall, she straightened a tapestry and measured what else was left to do before the meal. Quickly, she handed off her fur cloak to a giggling server who pinched and teased a squire of one of the guests. Cristiana gave the maid a stern look that held the promise of more work if she did not mind herself.
"You were that young once, my lady."
The rich roll of a deep male voice came from behind her, startling her even as it called forth a wealth of memories that made her feel foolish. Oh, how she had craved that voice in her ear once upon a time.
Turning, she faced her enemy full-on without the safety of her guard tower and a moat separating them.
Duncan the Brave, the legitimate son of Malcolm Culcanon, rose from a seat he'd taken in the shadowed corridor outside the great hall. His shoulders blocked the light from the nearest torch, casting his tall, formidable frame into a dark outline. Five years had taken little toll on his handsome features. Women all over the Highlands vied for his attentions ever since he'd been a youth. Cristiana herself had found him most pleasing when they'd met. The keenness of his dark green gaze mirrored his fine intellect. His close-cropped brown hair lacked the flowing beauty of more vain men, but Cristiana appreciated the cleanliness apparent in the sheen of it. Most of all, she admired the warrior strength of him, his chest so solid, it felt as if he wore chain mail upon it or rather, it had once upon a time when she'd ventured a touch. She'd hardened her heart to this arrogant man and all his family long ago.
"Fortunately, I was never that foolish." She turned from him to welcome two other guests who'd been invited for the winter revelry, a neighboring lord and his lady, who had supplied Domhnaill with men and allegiance for generations.
"Duncan!" the velvet-swathed mistress, Lady Beatrice of the Firth, gushed with delight upon recognizing Cristiana's companion. She clamped a heavily jeweled hand to her breast as if to quiet her heart. "How good to see you. We have heard about your success in driving the Normans from our borders"
"We must take our seats," her husband interrupted, his low tone laced with warning. "Duncan has only sought shelter because of the storm. No doubt, he is weary with travel."
Forestalling the argument that appeared imminent from Beatrice, Peter of the Firth dragged his wife into the hall.
"If you are stirred by the dance music, my lord," Beatrice called over her shoulder with a simpering smile, "I will be most glad to partner you."
Cristiana would have taken the exchange as an excuse to sidestep Duncan, but he must have sensed her motive, for he clamped a broad hand about her wrist and tugged her back into the shadows behind a giant tapestry.
"Sir," she protested, yanking her hand back and finding it well caught.
Alarm pricked over her skin. No one could see them here. Would he brutalize her as his half brother had brutalized her sister? He had made no secret of his fury over her choice to break their betrothal.
"We need to speak freely before we dine." He spoke into her ear, holding her much too close. "I am prepared to do you homage tonight as a peace offering. Will you accept?"
She tried to quiet her alarm by recalling how many important lords and ladies were on the other side of the tapestry. Duncan could not possibly mean her harm. Taking a deep breath, she calmed herself. And in the space of a heartbeat, she noticed the laundered scent of a fresh tunic and the warmth of his powerful form beneath it. His fingers spanned the inside of her arm while his thigh brushed against her skirts.
Her heart thundered at the audacity of his suggestion and his closeness.
"I will offer you shelter and nothing else." She tried not to think about the last time he'd held her thus. The sweetness of the kiss that had made her long to be a wedded woman back before she knew how faithless a Culcanon could be. For all that Duncan had expressed outrage at her refusal to wed, he'd wasted no time in reuniting with his lover at a nearby keep. "Do not take a charitable action for granted, lest you find your men escorted from my gates with all haste."
"It would not be wise to rebuff the king's new ally in front of so many witnesses, Cristiana." His hold on her eased. "Perhaps you have not received news of the kingdom since your father has been ill, but I assure you, Malcolm is unifying his holdings and carving a new order. The world has changed much in five years."
On the other side of the tapestry, more guests arrived and a minstrel struck up a bright tune sure to draw the rest of the keep to the hall for holiday revelry.
As early as this morning, a smoothly run supper to distract from her father's continued absence would have been her biggest concern. Now, Duncan suggested her efforts fooled no one, and worse, her family's standing might be suffering for the lack of a Domh-naill presence near King Malcolm.
"You forget yourself, sir." She slid free of his grip and busied her nervous hands by straightening her belt. "The Domhnaills have long been loyal supporters to the crown. And although we never troubled the king with the injury your kin did to mine, it is not too late for us to appeal for justice if you wish to bring the matter to his attention."
She had not forgotten the hurts her sister had suffered. The humiliation. The bruises. The recollection steeled her spine and deafened her ears to the other memories of that summer when the Domhnaill women had admitted treacherous men into their hearts.
"Cristiana, do not allow old angers to blind you. Domhnaill needs a leader, and if your da does not choose a successor, the king will find one for him."
The possibility so closely echoed her deepest fears that she felt Duncan had breached her walls for the second time today.
Indeed, she was so rattled that she did not protest when Duncan took her arm to lead her away from the tapestry and into the dim corridor once more.
"I am flattered to be your dining partner this eve," he announced loudly, as if they'd been in the middle of a conversation. By taking advantage of her tongue-tied state, he'd just claimed the seat beside her at sup.
Cristiana knew she needed to regain her wits before he commandeered the whole holiday revel.
The minstrel's song had reached a high note and the great hall was nearly full. Laverers circled the tables, offering a basin and towel to diners wishing to wash up.
"A poor traveler will always find a meal and a warm hearth at Domhnaill," she returned with forced brightness, holding herself stiffly away from him.
How did he know so much about the problems here? Swallowing back her fear, she allowed herself to be guided through the diners, toward the dais. Green pine garland hung from the rafters, infusing the room with the scent of a forest. A jongleur whom she'd named master of the revel was leading the servers in a song of welcome while guests found their seats.
"The hearth is all that is warm these days," Duncan whispered for her ears alone. "I remember when that was not always so."
"You've no right" she began, but cut herself off as a server approached them. The maid carried a heavy flagon of mead, reminding Cristiana of her first duty as hostess.
Duncan must have remembered, as well, for he leaned close again, not bothering to hide his nearness from her guests.
"Perhaps you will recall some of the old warmth when you must serve me?" He eased away from her, but masked his callousness with a low bow over her hand.
Fearing he might kiss her fingers in the courtier's way, she snatched her hand back at once. But Duncan only smiled and took his seat at the high table.
Cursing him roundly under her breath, she accepted the pitcher of mead and approached the dais. The lady of Domhnaill had always served her guest personally to begin meals in this ancient hall, and Cristiana had no intention of straying from the tradition when she had fought so long and hard to show the world everything ran smoothly here.
"To your health, my lord," she intoned, even managing to dip her head slightly in his direction as she did so. Thankfully, the forced curtsy helped to hide her burning cheeks.
With hands that hardly quivered, she approached Duncan the Brave and poured him a cup of her finest mead as if her world wasn't falling apart. As if her father wasn't dying. As if her beloved sister hadn't been exiled.
And almost as if Cristiana wasn't raising her sister's illegitimate babe in secret.
The sweetness remained. Yet there was more to it than that.
Duncan rolled the honey mead on his tongue hours later, after the meal had ended and the dancing commenced, trying to identify what was different about Lady Cristiana's famed brew from the last time he'd had a taste. He watched the lady herself as she bowed serenely to her dancing partner, an elder of her clan who served as a close adviser to her father. Like her mead, Cristiana was more complex than he recalled. Time had erased the softness of girlhood from her face, leaving a more elegant and refined beauty. She moved with grace and ease as she danced, though her serious expression made him think she was more apt to be discussing war strategy than holiday celebrations.