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The woman hummed a tune she had heard recently and fancied, as she prepared the final fatal dose of poison for her current husband. Excitement gripped her, anticipation of the long-awaited denouement. She liked to draw it out, to watch them suffer and decline as they looked to her to care for their needs. And she did. Sympathetically. Lovingly.
They deserved her special treatment. Most of them had been very good to her. She worked hard to make their short time together full of happiness.
She brought the steaming cup, poison masked in rich broth, to her husband. He was older than the others, but wealthy and kind. Handsome in a distinguished way, with graying black hair and dark eyes, and a finely muscled form before the poison had wasted the muscle from his bones. He'd reminded her of another man.
The memory soured her pleasure, so she was rather brusque when pressing the broth into her husband's hands, sloshing some down the front of his snowy white nightshirt. He looked up at her uncertainly. So worried and dependent that her heart softened to him.
She sat on his bedside and dabbed up the spill. "There, there, my love. This will make it all better, methinks."
He drank it down. When he was finished, she took the cup from his palsied hands and set it aside.
And then she watched him, waiting. Soon the first signs of the poison began. The skin around his mouth and eyes drew tight. His hands clutched his belly. His gaze jerked to her, eyes bulging with fright.
"That's it," she cooed and slid beneath the blankets, putting her arms around him. "It will only hurt a moment."
His mouth opened and he gasped her name, his body drawing rigid in her arms. His throat worked, expelling garbled words. He fought her embrace, but he was weak and she was strong. Excitement flowed through her, gathering deep in her belly, sending heat and tingling down her thighs. She held her lover tight in her arms as he convulsed, her own pleasure contracting her body in perfect harmony with his. It was beautiful. It always was. But when it was over, she did not feel sated.
It was not enough anymore. There had been a time when she could live happily with a man for years. Sometimes she would take lovers and seek her pleasure there before ending her union. But of late, her marriages grew shorter and shorter. This one had barely lasted a month. She would have to move on; people would suspect.
As she looked down at the still face of her husband, his mouth contorted in pain, eyes wide and staring, she knew it was not her failing, or even her dear husband's. It was the one that got away. He haunted her, still living. She'd failed him and so failed herself.
She pressed a soft kiss to her husband's still-warm lips and decided it was time to set things right.
Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Holling
Nicholas Lyon, twelfth earl of Kincreag, raced across the heather, his horse foaming in a flat-out run. He never mistreated his animals, but then never before had he received such a missive as he had on this night. Alan MacDonell of Glen Laire was dying.
This was not exactly startling news. Alan's health had been failing for some time -- all knew death would soon take him. Even so, he continued to linger, giving Nicholas hope that his friend would beat the mysterious illness that gripped him. Tonight that hope had been shattered.
He arrived at the loch that surrounded Lochlaire. After handing off their horses to the stable hands, Nicholas and his men clambered into three skiffs and rowed to the castle. The entrance glowed softly from the torches within. The creaking of the rising portcullis echoed in the distance. The night was dark. Quiet. Ominous.
Inside the bowels of Lochlaire, Nicholas leapt onto the stairs that disappeared into the water. The castle was subdued, fires dampened, hall deserted. As if already in mourning. Was he too late? He strode straight to Alan's chambers, misery constricting his chest. Before he could knock, it opened, and Hagan slipped out, shutting the door behind him.
"You came," the big, black-haired Irishman said. Barrel-chested and harsh featured, Hagan cut an imposing figure and was a bulwark shielding Alan from the world.
"You knew I would."
Hagan hesitated, which was odd. Nicholas had never known Hagan to be unsure of himself. But then Alan's illness had taken its toll on everyone, most especially Hagan, who had become nursemaid to Alan.
"I must see him," Nicholas said and pushed past, opening the door.
A candle flickered on a table near the bed. A woman sat at the table, a book open before her. Her voice, soft and feminine as a dove's wings, glided softly over him, easing the crushing fear in his chest. Candlelight bathed the delicate line of her jaw, but the rest of her was in shadows. Alan's deerhound lay at her feet, its nose between its paws. It did not lift its head; it merely shifted its strange, cloudy eyes to look at Nicholas.
She stopped her reading and raised her head. Her eyes and hair appeared black in the gloom, but Nicholas remembered them well. Eyes the soft gray of a Highland sky after a storm. Hair a rich sable, thick with curls. The candlelight was full on her face now, illuminating the alabaster texture of her skin, so fine that it shone with a radiance he'd only seen before in paintings of the Madonna.
Another of Alan's duplicitous daughters. Gillian was her name. The meekest of the three. He should have insisted on her from the beginning -- then maybe he and Alan would not be estranged.
"You came," she said, fine brows arched in surprise.
As if he wouldn't have. He ignored her and went straight to the bed. He couldn't bring himself to look at Alan -- not just yet -- and so he busied himself with lighting the candelabra beside the bed. He felt Gillian's gaze on him, searching, questioning. It was this one that Alan had tried to foist on him after his oldest daughter had run off with some renegade knight, practically leaving Nicholas at the altar. It was a woman who had caused this rift between Nicholas and his best friend. Women were the authors of all his problems. He was finished with them -- especially with the MacDonell sisters.
He took a deep breath, then finally allowed his gaze to rest on Alan, bracing himself to see gaunt cheeks and a deathly gray pallor. His brow lowered in surprise.
Alan was sleeping -- quite peacefully, it seemed. He'd clearly gained weight in the past month, and there was a healthy pink tinge to his cheeks above his whitestreaked auburn beard.
Nicholas stared at him a long moment, his eyes moving to Alan's chest, where he watched the gentle rise and fall for several moments before turning abruptly to Gillian.
"What is this? I was told he was dying."
Gillian seemed frozen in her chair, hands folded primly in her lap. A slow blush climbed from her neck, staining her cheeks. Too terrified of him to speak? He had that effect on many people. The devil earl, they called him -- murderer of wives and children.
"He is." Her answer came out in a rush of breath just as he turned away. He turned back quizzically.
"He has been dying for months. You know that."
"Aye, but that's not what the letter I received said."
Her lashes fluttered nervously, hands gripped tightly in her lap. "What did it say?"
She was lying. She knew what it said. He gave her a narrow look before returning his attention to the bed. Her skirts rustled as she came to the bedside.
"What did it say?" she repeated, her voice strong and steady.
"As if you don't know."
She let out a small breath. "I do not!"
His mouth twisted with disbelief, but he said, "The letter claimed he was at death's door. That this is it -- he's to die before first light."
"Oh." She looked at her father askance.
Nicholas snorted softly and glanced away dismissively. "Wake up, old man."
Before he could shake Alan awake, a small, pale hand touched his sleeve. "Wait." Though she looked meek, a thread of command ran through her voice. She met his gaze. "Why did you make that noise?"
Color slowly filled her cheeks again, and she dropped her gaze. Her chin immediately popped up, as though she forced herself to be bold. "You think I am lying."
Nicholas's mouth curved. "I know you are."
She blinked at him, her mouth slightly ajar, exposing a line of small, white teeth. "But I am not! I knew nothing of a letter, only that you were summoned. I did not know why. Father has been trying to bring you here for months!"
Summoned. He should be insulted. A mere chieftain did not summon an earl, but then nothing about his relationship with Alan had ever been normal.
"Aye, letters and letters in which he tried to foist you off on me. I've had a taste of the MacDonell idea of fidelity, and that was quite enough, thank you. Your father is fortunate we are friends. I could have forced the betrothal, or demanded restitution for his default. But I did not."
"He offered restitution." She drew herself up taller and squared her shoulders, though her chin trembled and she nervously twirled a silver ring on her finger. "Me."
Nicholas looked her up and down. She was a beauty, all soft curves, but he did not exaggerate when he said he'd had his fill of duplicitous women. He wanted nothing more to do with MacDonell women.
"I'm not interested. I never was."
Her throat tightened, and her strong stance slowly sagged. She looked away from him, to her father.
He felt a small stab of remorse until she said, "My sister is not as horrible as you believe. She did not even know you. Did not know anything about you but the rumors. She entered the betrothal in good faith, not expecting to fall in love with the knight who delivered her."
"Aye, it was quite inconvenient for all parties."
Gillian nodded quickly. "I respect your own...disappointment, my lord, but -- "
"You are mistaken if you think me disappointed. Indeed, I am overjoyed to have discovered her true nature before being tied to her for life."
The corners of Gillian's mouth tightened, and she darted him an irritated look. She returned her gaze to her father and took a deep breath. "It is unfair of you to judge me by my sister's actions. I am not like her...we weren't even raised together."
That was true. After their mother was burned for witchcraft, Alan sent his daughters away for their safety, each hidden from the world and from each other. For twelve years.
Gillian raised her chin again, fixing him with a determined, gray stare. "I would be a good countess."
He rubbed his chin with his thumb and studied her, amused and intrigued by her false bravado. "And this has nothing to do with your betrothal to the Frenchman?"
Her expressive skin flushed. "Well. Aye. Of course."
"My heart palpitates. I am the lesser of two dreadful fates. I am thus wooed."
Her brows drew together. "Wooed? I am not wooing you!"
"My lord!" she said, a shrill edge to her voice. "You never speak, and when you do, you make no sense. Women do not woo."
"We don't know the same women."
She seemed completely bewildered. In truth, in his amusement at teasing her, he'd forgotten for a moment the deceit that had brought him here. Her eyes widened with comprehension, and she took a deep, shaky breath, her ample bosom rising.
"I understand. You have many other opportunities. I have been impertinent. Forgive me."
He raised a hand to stop her, but it was too late -- she'd scurried to the door and was gone. He stared at the closed door several seconds, discomfited. He had not intended to upset her. He shook his head at himself. He didn't want to marry her anyway, so what did he care?
He returned his attention to the bed and found Alan watching him. How long had the old fool been awake?
Nicholas moved closer to the bed. "I nearly killed my horse to get here. Yet you look quite well...considering." He did not look well now that Nicholas examined him closer without the distraction of Gillian. He looked nothing like the good friend Nicholas had known most of his life. The man in bed was a pale shade of his former self. But still, it was an improvement over the last time Nicholas had been here.
"Really?" Alan said, pleased. "Nearly killed your horse? Well, and here I didn't think you'd even come."
"Clearly you'll live to see the daylight. So why am I here?"
Alan looked a bit abashed, but he met Nicholas's eyes directly. "I knew of no other way to bring you back here. Your replies to my letters were distant...and I could not come to you."
A heavy cloud of dread enveloped Nicholas. He'd been afraid of this. He owed Alan his life -- a debt the chieftain had never called -- and yet Nicholas felt the weight of it, knowing Alan's time was short.
The deerhound pushed past, laying its snout on the bed as if to solicit affection, watching Nicholas with those strange eyes.
"Now that I'm here," Nicholas said carefully, "I'm glad I came. I have much to say...but on the matter of marriage, I've not changed my mind."
Alan stroked the hound's wiry fur. "But if you'd just get to know her. Spend some time -- "
"No." Nicholas's voice was forceful, but he felt himself faltering.
Damnation. Nicholas would not be forced into marriage. He'd given in to Alan grudgingly the first time because of the life debt -- protecting Alan's daughters had seemed fair payment of it. Scotland was a dangerous place these days, with women burning for witchcraft nearly every other day. Alan's first wife, Lillian, had been burned for witchcraft, and it was said that his daughters were fey, too. There were few prospects for women carrying the taint of sorcery. Alan had asked Nicholas if he would marry his eldest daughter, Isobel, knowing Nicholas's title and honor would protect Isobel and her sisters. Nicholas had needed a wife, but the suitable women in Scotland, though eager enough to become countesses, had not appealed to him. He'd accepted that he might never marry again. There had been relief in acceptance, partnered with loneliness, but he could have lived with that.
And then Alan had offered him Isobel.
She was the oldest and practically an heiress. Should Alan's half brother, Roderick, die without issue, as it seemed he would despite years of plowing the barren fields of three wives, Glen Laire would pass to Isobel's husband. And so they had been betrothed...until she'd run off with some Highland knight.
Alan sighed deeply. "I'm sorry I deceived you. But it wasn't a complete untruth. I don't know how it is I live still. Most days I cannot even eat. Rose forces water down my throat with her disgusting concoctions. I haven't walked on my own legs in three months. I tried, yesterday, and fell. Hagan scolded me, then turned Rose loose on me." Alan shuddered. His eyes turned up to Nicholas's, mournful in the folds of loose skin. "I don't know how I can go on like this...I can't see it getting any better. I'm still here because of Rose and her healing, but even she cannot fathom what is wrong or how to end it. And this...this existence..." He closed his eyes and swallowed. "Well, it's unacceptable. I want to see Gillian well married. Then I can go in peace."
Nicholas stared down at his friend, vague alarm quickening his pulse. "It's a sin, what you speak of."
Alan's gaze stabbed him. "You're one to speak of sins. Besides, is it not a mercy to end a beast's suffering? Why is a man any different?"
There was a stool nearby. Nicholas hooked his foot around the leg and drew it near, lowering himself onto it so he was closer to Alan's level.
"What of Rose? You've said she's the most willful of the lot and she's determined to heal you."
"Rose fancies herself in love with her betrothed, Jamie MacPherson. But she refuses to marry him so long as I am ill. She has committed herself to nursing me to the end. My death will free her to be happy."
"How selfless of you." Nicholas shook his head in mock amazement. "I never thought I'd say this, but you're a coward."
Alan's green eyes fired at the insult, and he seemed ready to leap out of bed to challenge Nicholas. But then the fire died, and he laughed softly.
"You think to shame me from my path? Fine, then. I can use shame, too. You owe me a life. Let it be my daughter's."
Nicholas closed his eyes and lowered his head to his hands. The dread that had pressed at his chest since he'd arrived settled in his gut. He couldn't bear to hear these things. He did not want his friend to die. Did not want to do what Alan asked of him -- and yet he was bound by their friendship and by the debt. He'd known he would be when he'd answered the missive by racing here. Had known, though he'd not admitted it to himself until this moment, that he would agree to whatever Alan asked. He had no choice.
Gillian paused outside her father's chambers, her hand still on the door latch, ears straining, but with the door closed, she could hear nothing. She pressed her ear to the wood.
"What do you think you're doing, Miss Gillian?"
She gave a little yelp of surprise and turned to look guiltily at Hagan. The enormous Irishman stood nearby, waiting patiently.
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
She glanced around the hall but saw no one except two small children playing in a far corner. A vague headache throbbed sullenly in her temples. She rubbed absently at it, then turned back to the door, pressing her ear close again.
"Now stop that, Miss Gillian," Hagan said, a frown in his voice, but he made no move to stop her.
"I must hear what happens!"
Hagan caught her arm and pulled her away from the door. "You've been away too long, lass. You should know better than to eavesdrop. I'll be telling your uncle if you don't behave yourself."
Gillian sighed. Hagan was right. She had been away too long. The only reason Alan had brought them home now was to see them married before he died. It had been a shock for all of them, as they'd not even known their father was ill. She'd lived in the Lowlands for the past twelve years. Glen Laire did not feel like home. Home was somewhere else, with other people. She'd have known if her foster father was dying, or even if he'd had a touch of ague. She'd lived more than half her life with the Hepburns. She knew nothing of Glen Laire and the MacDonells anymore. And yet her sisters had slid back into it so easily, as if they'd been born to it, and she hadn't.
"Now be gone until your father sends for you," Hagan said sternly.
Gillian went in search of her remaining sister. Isobel was in the west, living with her new husband, Sir Philip Kilpatrick. Only Rose and Gillian were left, and not for much longer. Kincreag had been Gillian's last hope. If he didn't marry her, it was the old Frenchman. Her father insisted. And besides, no one else would have her. It was laughable, really, though she couldn't muster the will to laugh at it. She was the only one of the three sisters who had not inherited their mother and father's magic. Alan was not a powerful witch, but he had a shine. Lillian had been a great witch, and Isobel and Rose were both gifted witches. Gillian was nothing. She didn't even look like a MacDonell, with her brown hair and gray eyes. And yet she still carried the MacDonell taint. No one would touch her except the Frenchman.
Isobel and Rose were so fortunate. Isobel had married for love, and Rose would wed a man she'd known since they were children. There was fondness there, potential for deep love and contentment. Gillian knew nothing of her suitors except one was old and spoke no Scots, and the other, though relatively young and handsome, was supposed to be a murderer. But he didn't want her anyway.
She found Rose in their chambers, mashing something in a small stone bowl. Her slender back was to Gillian, her white sleeves rolled up so the taut muscles of her forearms were visible. Thick, shimmering auburn hair hung sleekly down her back to her waist and trembled with her efforts.
"He's here," Gillian announced, throwing herself on the bed.
The grinding and mashing stopped. "So he came. I didn't think he would -- not after what Isobel did. Will he marry you?"
Gillian sat up and stared at her sister gloomily. Rose was not exactly beautiful, but she was striking. She had the fierce features of a Viking, broad forehead and narrow nose. A wide mouth and catlike dark blue eyes. Her body was lean and strong. Gillian had not yet seen her on horseback but deduced she was probably a skilled horsewoman. Men's eyes followed her -- several MacDonell lads seemed quite taken with her, though Rose was oblivious to anything but her healing.
"No. I put forth my case just as you instructed. I was strong and confident. I looked him in the eyes, just like you told me to. He was unmoved. He finds me ugly. And fat. And stupid. He looked at me like I was an unexpected worm in his apple." Gillian sighed and dropped her head to her hands. "It's to France with me."
"You are not fat nor ugly nor stupid, and you know it. If he is blind enough to think so, then I say good riddance to the earl of Kincreag."
Gillian wanted to agree, wanted to reject him as he'd so clearly rejected her. But she couldn't. She wanted to be a countess. Wanted it more than she'd known. The disappointment weighed her down. If she were a countess, she'd finally be somebody. Countesses had duties. Countesses were respected. Countesses mattered. She felt certain that when she became one, she would be transformed into someone strong and brilliant, just like her sisters. She might not have magic, but she could have that.
And Kincreag was no old Frenchman. He was young and virile and handsome. Her insides tightened at the memory of his smile when he'd teased her. She pressed her fingers into her eyes. He'd not smiled at her or teased her. He'd smirked at her and mocked her. Her shoulders drooped further.
Rose's hand touched Gillian's shoulder, and she looked up. "Don't despair. I'll think of something."
Rose's words filled Gillian with more unhappiness. It was her life. She wanted to be master of it, but she didn't know how. If only she could be a countess....She wished she could think of some way to win Kincreag. But she was out of ideas.
Rose dropped onto the bed beside Gillian and took her hand. There was nothing left to say. Gillian knew her sister was thinking furiously, auburn brows drawn together, blue eyes narrowed and distant. Rose was quick and clever. If she had no schemes, all truly was lost.
There was a sharp knock on the door. Gillian stood wearily and answered it. A man stood in the hall toying nervously with a loose thread in the crest upon his shoulder. The earl of Kincreag's crest.
He dropped his hand and straightened importantly. "Lord Kincreag wishes a word with Gillian MacDonell."
Copyright © 2005 by Jen Holling