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Only For You
By Hannah Howell
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 1995 Hannah Howell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDunncraig Summer, 1477
"Pat the dirt o'er the seed verra gently, Meggie."
Annora smiled as the little girl patted the dirt as slowly and carefully as she patted her cat, Sunny. Margaret, who stoutly preferred to be called Meggie, was all that kept Annora at Dunncraig. Her cousin Donnell had wanted someone to care for the child and her family had sent her. That was no surprise for she was poor and illegitimate, a burden every kinsman and kinswoman she had was quick to shake off whenever they could. At first she had been resigned; but then she had met little Meggie, a child of only two with huge brown eyes and thick golden curls. Despite the fact that Annora thought Donnell was a brutish man, even feared him a little, she had some doubts about his rights to claim Dunncraig. Three years later she was still at Dunncraig and not simply because she had no better place to go. She stayed for little Meggie, a child who had stolen her heart almost from the very first day.
"Seeds are precious," said Meggie.
"Aye, verra precious," Annora agreed. "Some plants just grow again every spring all by themselves," she began.
"Cursed stinking weeds."
Bending her head to hide a grin, Annora quietly said, "Young ladies shouldnae say cursed." Neither should ladies of four-and-twenty, she mused, fully aware of where Meggie had heardthose words. "But, aye, weeds grow all by themselves in places where ye dinnae want them. Some plants, however, cannae survive the winter and we must collect the seeds or roots, storing them away so that we can plant them when it is warm again."
"'Tisnae warm yet."
Annora looked up to find Meggie scowling at the sky. "Warm enough to plants seeds, love."
"Are ye certain we shouldnae wrap them in a wee plaid first?"
"The earth is their plaid."
"Annora! The laird wants ye to go to the village and see how good that new mon makes a goblet!"
Even as Annora turned to respond to young Ian's bellow the youth was already heading back into the keep. She sighed and carefully collected up all the little bags of seeds she had intended to plant this afternoon. Ian was probably already telling Donnell that Annora was going to the village and, of course, she would. One did not say nay to Donnell. Taking Meggie by the hand, Annora hurried them both into the keep so that they could wash up before leaving for the village.
It was as they were about to leave that Donnell strode out of the great hall to intercept them. Annora tensed and she felt Meggie press hard against her skirts. She fought the urge to apologize for not having raced to the village without hesitation and met his dark scowl with a faint, questioning smile.
My cousin is a very handsome man, Annora thought. He had thick dark hair and fine dark eyes. His features were manly but not harsh. He even had good skin and no visible scars. Yet Donnell constantly wore such a sour or angry expression that his handsomeness was obscured. It was as if all that was bad inside of the man left some irrevocable mark upon his looks. The way Donnell looked now, Annora could not see how any woman could find him attractive.
"Why arenae ye going to the village?" he snapped.
"We are going right now, Cousin," she said, doing her best to sound sweet and obedient. "We but needed to wash the dirt of the garden off our hands."
"Ye shouldnae be working in the gardens like some common slut. Ye may be a bastard, but ye come from good blood. And ye shouldnae be teaching Margaret such things, either."
"Some day she will be the mistress of some demesne or keep with a household to rule. She will rule it much better if she kens just how much work is needed when she orders something to be done."
The way Donnell's eyes narrowed told Annora that he was trying to decide if she had just criticized him in some way. She had, all too aware of how little Donnell knew or cared about the work he ordered people to do. He never gave a thought as to how all his needs and comforts were met, except to savagely punish the ones he deemed responsible if they failed in some way. Annora kept her gaze as innocent as possible as she met his look of suspicion, breathing a silent sigh of relief when he had obviously decided that she was not clever enough to be so subtle.
"Get ye gone then," he said. "I have been hearing a great deal about what fine work this new mon does and I seek a goblet or the like so that I may see his skill with my own eyes."
Annora nodded and hurried past him, little Meggie keeping step close by her side. If the fool was so interested in this man's skill she wondered why he did not go and have a look for himself. It was the fear of saying that thought aloud that made her scurry. Donnell's response to such words would be a hard fist and she preferred to avoid those whenever possible.
"Why does the laird need a goblet?" asked Meggie the moment Annora slowed their fast pace to an almost lazy stroll.
"He wants to see if the man who carves them is as good at what he does as everyone says he is," replied Annora.
"He doesnae believe everyone?"
"Weel, nay, I suspicion he doesnae."
"Then why will he believe us?"
"A verra good question, love. I dinnae ken why he should if he doesnae heed anyone else's word, but 'tis best if we just do as he asks."
Meggie nodded, her expression surprisingly solemn for one so young. "Aye, or he will hit ye again, and I dinnae want him to do that."
Neither did Annora. Her cousin had come close to breaking her jaw and a few other bones the last time he had beaten her. She knew she ought to be grateful that Donnell's second-in-command Egan had stopped him from continuing to punch her, but she was not. Egan did not usually care who Donnell beat or how badly he did so, was in truth just as brutish as Donnell was. The fact that the man did not want her beaten, at least not too severely, made her very nervous. So did the way he always watched her. Annora did not want to owe that man anything.
"Neither do I, love," she finally murmured and quickly distracted Meggie from such dark thoughts by pointing out the cattle grazing on the hillside.
All the way to the village Annora kept Meggie entertained by drawing her attention to every animal, person, or plant they passed. She exchanged a few greetings with a few people, yet again regretting how closely watched and confined Donnell kept her and Meggie. Although she would have preferred choosing the times and reasons she traveled to the village, Annora enjoyed the pretense of freedom, able to ignore the guards she knew were right behind her. She only wished she would be given enough time and freedom to come to the village more often and get to know the people of Dunncraig better.
Annora sighed and inwardly shook her head. She had not been given any chance to become a true part of Dunncraig, but that was only part of her regret about not getting to know the people as well as she would like. Something was not right about Donnell's place as laird, about his claim to these lands and to Meggie. Annora had sensed that wrongness from the start, but after three years, she had not uncovered any truth to give some weight to her suspicions. She knew someone at Dunncraig knew the answers to all the questions she had, but she had not yet found a way around Donnell's guard long enough to ask any of them.
Approaching the cooper's home and shop, Annora felt her spirits lighten just a little. Edmund the cooper's wife Ida might be at home and Annora knew the woman would readily sate her need to talk to another woman. Her pace grew a little faster in anticipation. She dearly loved Meggie but the child simply could not satisfy the need for a good, long woman-to-woman talk.
"Rolf, she is coming."
This time James did not hesitate to look up from his work when Edward called him by his assumed name. It had taken James longer than he had liked to become accustomed to being called Rolf. He hated to admit it but Edmund had been right when he had counseled patience, had warned him that he would need time to fully assume the guise of Rolf Larousse Lavengeance.
Then what Edmund had just said fully settled into James's mind. "Meggie?"
"Aye, but to ye she must be Lady Margaret," Edmund reminded him.
"Ah, of course. I shallnae forget. Who comes with her?"
"Mistress Annora and, a few yards behind, two of Donnell's men."
James cursed. "Does the mon think there is some danger to the woman or Meggie here?"
"Only to him, I am thinking. MacKay doesnae allow the woman to talk much with anyone. Nor the bairn. Some folk think the lass thinks herself too good for us and is teaching the bairn to be the same, but I think Mistress Annora is forced to keep to herself. E'en when she has a chance to talk to someone, there are always some of MacKay's men close at hand to try to hear all that is said."
"'Tis his own guilt making him think everyone is eager to decry him."
"I think that may be it. My Ida says the lass is clever and quick. MacKay may fear she has the wit to put a few things together and see the truth. 'Tis a big lie he is living, and it has to weigh on the mon."
"I hope it breaks his cursed back," James muttered as he tried to clean himself up just a little. "Better still, I want it to hang him."
"So does most everyone at Dunncraig," said Edmund.
James nodded. He had quickly seen how cowed his people were. Donnell was a harsh, cruel laird. He was also unskilled in the knowledge needed to keep the lands and the stock thriving. There were all too many signs that the man glutted himself on the riches of Dunncraig with little thought to how his people might survive or the fact that care must be taken to ensure that there was food in the future. The people might be afraid of the man seated in the laird's chair but they did not hold silent when they were amongst themselves, and James had heard a lot. Donnell was bleeding the lands dry to fill his belly and his purse.
Ida stuck her head into the room. "The lass says the laird sent her. He is wanting a goblet made by Rolf."
Before he could say anything, Ida was gone. For a moment James simply sat at his work table and breathed slowly and evenly to calm his excitement and anticipation. This was the first step. He had to be careful not to stumble on it. He knew Donnell spent a lot to make Dunncraig keep as fine as some French king's palace. That required a skilled woodworker and he wanted to be the one who was hired.
"That one," said Edmund, pointing toward a tall, richly carved goblet.
"Aye, I think ye have chosen the perfect one, old friend," James said and smiled.
"I havenae seen that expression for a while."
"Aye. I can fair feel it in the air. The mon is a vain swine who spends far too much of your coin on things he doesnae need, things he thinks make him look important. Ye guessed his weakness right. Do ye really think the mon would leave some proof of his guilt around though?"
It was a question Edmund had asked before and James still was not confident of his feeling that the truth was inside the keep. "I cannae be sure but I think there has to be something. He cannae be rid of all proof. Mayhap I will but hear something that will aid me." He shrugged. "I cannae say. All I do ken is that I must be inside Dunncraig if I am to have any chance of getting the truth."
"Weel, then, let us get ye in there then."
Annora looked up as Edmund and another man stepped out of the workrooms in the back of the little shop. She stared at the man with Edmund, wondering why he so captivated her attention. He was tall and lean, even looked as if he could use a few good Scratch's meals. His hair was light brown and it hung past his broad shoulders. There was a scar on his right cheek, and he wore a patch over his left eye. The right eye was such a beautiful green she felt a pang of sorrow for the loss of its mate. His features were handsome, cleanly carved yet sharpened a little by the signs of hunger and trouble. This man had known hardship and she felt a surprising tug of deep sympathy for him. Since she had no idea what sort of trouble may have put that harshness on his handsome face, she did not understand why she wanted to smooth those lines away. The way his slightly full lips made her feel a little warm alarmed her somewhat. The man was having a very strange effect upon her and she did not think she liked it.
Then she saw his gaze rest on Meggie and put her arm around the child's shoulders. There was such an intensity in his look that she wondered why it did not make her afraid. A moment later, Annora realized that the intensity held no hint of a threat or dislike. There was a hunger there, a need and a grieving; and she wondered if he had lost a child. Again she felt a need to soothe him and that need began to make her very nervous.
She looked at the goblet he held in his elegant long-fingered hands and gasped softly. "Is that the one ye wish to sell to the laird?" she asked.
"Aye," the man replied. "I am Rolf, Rolf Larousse Lavengeance."
Annora blinked and had to bite her lip not to say anything. It was a very strange name. It roughly translated to wolf, redhead, and vengeance. It was also strange for a poor working man to have such an elaborate name. There had to be a story behind it and her curiosity stirred, but she beat it down. It was not her place to question the man about his name. As a bastard, she was also all too aware of the hurt and shame that could come from such questioning; and she would never inflict that upon anyone else.
"It is verra beautiful, Master Lavengeance," she said and held her hand out. "Might I have a look?"
As she took the goblet into her hands, she decided the man had been in Scotland long enough to lose much of his French accent and pick up a word or two of their language. If Donnell hired the man to do some work at the keep that would make life a great deal easier. Donnell had absolutely no knowledge of French and could easily become enraged by a worker who had difficulty understanding what he said. And, looking at the beautiful carvings of a hunt on the goblet, she suspected Donnell would be very eager to have the man come and work at Dunncraig keep. The thought that she might have to see a lot of the man in order to translate orders for him made her feel a little too eager and Annora felt a sudden need to get away from this man.
"I believe this will please my cousin weel," she said. "Your work is beautiful, Master Lavengeance. The stag on this goblet looks so real one almost expects to see him toss his proud head."
James just nodded and named his price. The woman named Annora did not even blink, but paid for it and hurried Meggie out of the shop. Moving quickly to look out the door, James watched her lead his child back to the keep, two of Donnell's men in step a few yards behind them. He felt a hand rub his arm and looked to find Ida standing at his side, her blue eyes full of sympathy.
"Annora loves the wee lass," Ida said.
"Does she? Or is she but a good nursemaid?" James asked.
"Oh, aye, she loves the lass. 'Tis Lady Margaret who holds Mistress Annora at Dunncraig and naught else. The child has been loved and weel cared for whilst ye have been gone, Laird."
James nodded but he was not sure he fully believed that. Meggie had looked healthy and happy, but she had said nothing. There was also a solemnity to the child that had not been there before. Meggie had been as sweet and innocent as her mother but had had a liveliness that Mary had never possessed. There had been no sign of that liveliness, and he wondered what had smothered it. He would not lay the blame for that change at the feet of Mistress Annora yet, but he would watch the woman closely.
He inwardly grimaced, knowing he would find it no hardship to watch the woman. Mistress Annora was beautiful. Slender yet full-curved, her body caught-and held-a man's gaze. Her thick raven hair made her fair skin look an even purer shade of cream, and her wide midnight-blue eyes drew in a man like a moth to a flame. After three years alone he knew he had to be careful not to let his starved senses lead him astray, but he was definitely eager to further his acquaintance with MistressAnnora.
Suddenly he wondered if Mistress Annora was Donnell's lover; and then wondered why that possiblity enraged him. James told himself it was because he did not want such a woman caring for his child. It might be unfair to think her anything more than she seemed, but her beauty made it all too easy to think that Donnell would not be able to leave her alone. Mistress Annora's true place in Dunncraig keep was just another question needing an answer.
Stepping more fully into the open doorway of Edmund's shop, he stared up at the keep that had once been his home. He would be back there soon. He would enter the keep as a worker, but he meant to stay as the laird. For all her beauty, if Mistress Annora had any part in Donnell's schemes, she would find that her beauty did not buy her any mercy from him.
Excerpted from Only For You by Hannah Howell Copyright © 1995 by Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission.
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