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I believe I could learn to be a better man.
Pacing the corridor outside his lady's solar on their wedding eve, his bride gift bundled beneath one arm, Callum Fraser realized that seven months of self-imposed celibacy had put his newfound goodness to a mighty test.
It seemed an eternity since that May Day when he'd dropped down on bended knee and proposed. "Marry me, sweet Alys, for I love thee true."
Tears shone in her beautiful blue eyes. She nodded fiercely. "I love you, too, my lord, with all my heart. And I will consent to be your wife on two conditions."
Conditions! Accustomed to seizing what he wanted, he hadn't expected any caveats nor did he care for the prospect of bargaining with his bride.
Still, desperate as he was to have her, he hadn't hesitated. "Anything, my dearling, anything you wish. You've only to name it."
Her heart-shaped face had registered both steely resolve and shy sweetness. "I canna bring a maidenhead to our bridal bed, but I would come to you as a true bride, untouched by you."
Awash in finer feelings, he'd nodded, thinking to set the wedding date for soon, very soon. "If that is what you wish, then you have my word it shall be so."
"I thank you." She sent him a small, relieved smile. "Secondly, I would have us marry at Christmastide, so that I may be your Christmas gift and you mine."
Taken aback, he'd risen quickly, nearly falling over on his side. "But Alys, my sweet, Christmastide is a full seven months away."
Her firm little nod sent his soul sinking. "Aye, milord, and in those seven months we both shall know whether or not you've given your pledge in haste." Her face shadowed. "I married in haste once before, taking my vows at an inn instead of a church and finding myself a widow before I had the chance to truly be a wife. I canna regret a union that brought me my son, still, the matter came to a sorry end." The plaintive look she sent him slashed at his heart.
He'd had no choice but to give way. "Then let the nuptials take place upon the First Day of Christmas, my lady, for I mean for us to disport ourselves most merrily, most wickedly, on each of the twelve feast days—and nights."
There had followed the longest seven months of his life.
Seven months of chaste kisses. Seven months of lonely nights and spotty sleep. Seven months of awaking from fevered dreams in which Alys lay beside him, beneath him, astride him. Seven months of cursing himself for making a promise that neither of them had really wanted him to keep. Now he was weary of waiting, weary of wanting, and altogether weary of doing without. Mere minutes stood between him and midnight, and their wedding day. Why bother with waiting at all?
Creaking drew his gaze to the slowly opening door. He fell back into the darkened archway, dodging the sudden splash of light. Milread, his sister-in-law Brianna's wise woman, poked her head out, her white hair streaming beyond her humped back.
"Dinna fret, wean, like as not the little lordling sleeps still, but I'll go to him to be sure." She turned back inside the chamber, proffering a profile of warty nose and pointed chin. "Bide here and bolt the door 'til I return. I dinna trust that randy bridegroom of yours any farther than I can throw him."
Callum bristled. Since her arrival that morning, Milread had kept Alys confined within her chamber, supposedly as a safeguard against ill luck. Near sightless and almost toothless, still the old dragon made for a formidable foe.
"Milread, truly, is that entirely necessary?" Frustration strained Alys's dulcet voice. "My lord has already seen me. We broke our fast together in his great hall this very morn."
"My lady Brianna sent me in her stead to see you kept safe, and safe you will be kept. Marriage is a tricky enough matter without courting bad luck to begin it."
Callum caught his sweetheart's sigh just before the door fell closed. The bolt struck home. Cursing silently, he held his breath and waited. The crone passed him by, her small, crooked shadow cutting a goblinlike silhouette on the stone wall, her shambling gait carrying her with infuriating slowness toward the opposite corridor where Alys's son's nursery lay. The second she was out of sight, he stepped out into the open.
A pox on old wives' warnings! A man fashioned his own fortunes. Callum marched up to the door, feeling his resolve firm along with other oh so sensitive parts. He was laird, was he not? Really, who was there to stay him?
He set his fist upon the planked wood and laid siege.
Sitting before her dressing mirror stroking the ivory-backed brush through her freshly washed hair, Alys marveled at what a difference seven months had made. Less than a year ago she'd barged into Brianna's great hall, a penniless prostitute come to plead for the return of her baby from the burgher's widow who'd stolen him. Now she was about to marry the man of her dreams, a lord who not only loved and honored her but who also wished to be a father to her son. The sight of Alasdair being carried about the castle grounds on her beloved's broad shoulders never failed to bring grateful tears to her eyes. Her boy wouldn't be a bairn forever. At only thirteen months, already he'd begun showing signs of willfulness that needed the guidance of a strong yet loving man. Callum might not be her son's natural sire, yet Alys felt sure a better father could not be found. That their wedding celebration would last the full twelve days of Christmas seemed only fitting. With Callum as her husband, Christmas promised to take place not only for the traditional twelve days but all three hundred and sixty-five. He'd already pledged to present her with a different sensual "gift" on each of their first twelve nights together, gifts they would savor and enjoy throughout the years. Considering all the wicked things she'd dreamt of doing with him, her pulse skipped every time she imagined what the next twelve nights might bring. And yet ever since breaking her fast that morning, foreboding had seized hold of her, jangling her nerves and seeping into her bones like a dank, dark mist. No doubt it was nothing more than a bride's natural nervousness, but she couldn't help wishing they'd set the wedding for Christmastide Eve instead.
Pummeling outside her door startled her, causing the comb to slip from her fingers. She rose from the cushioned bench on jellied legs. Callum! It must be. The only other who would come to her chamber at this hour was Milread, and it was too soon for the wise woman to have returned.
Callum's muffled shout confirmed it. "Alys, 'tis me."
She hurried over to the bolted door, the desire to see him warring with the desire to keep their love safe. For a betrothed couple to see one another on the eve of their nuptials was to risk the ultimate bad fortune. She'd disregarded tradition in her first marriage and there'd been the very devil to pay. This time she meant to do everything proper and right.
Through the barrier, she called back, "My lord, you must leave at once, for 'tis terrible ill luck for you to see me the night before our wedding."
Ever stubborn, he shouted at what must be the tops of his lungs, "Nay worries, lady, for 'tis after midnight and thus morn already. I would but claim a Christmas kiss from your sweet lips."
Despite her fears, she chuckled. "Quiet you, my lord. You'll wake the household entire."
"And if I do, 'tis mine to wake as I will."
She pressed the side of her cheek against the planked wood, wishing it were Callum. The glimpse she'd got when they'd broken their fast that morning seemed so very long ago.
"I will grant you all the kisses you desire tomorrow eve, after our vows are said and the Yule candle lit." At that moment a chill swept across her back and the shiver kept her from saying more.
He honeyed his voice. "I have a gift for you, and it willna wait."
"Another gift!" She pulled back from the door. "You are too good to me."
Her cedar-lined cupboard and bride's chest were both bursting with his bounty. It wasn't yet the first day of Christmas and already several sumptuous gifts had found their way into her room: a cowl encrusted with semiprecious stones, a pair of slippers stitched with scarlet silk and soled of softest leather, a mahogany inlaid sewing chest filled with an array of various sized bodkins, a pair of silver scissors and spools of fancy spun thread.
"That would be impossible. You are the sweetest, kindest and aye, fairest lady in all of Christendom, and I the most fortunate of men. Only set aside these fears of old wives' warnings and let me in, sweeting. I willna claim more than kisses. Just kisses, only kisses, I swear to you."
Alys bit her bottom lip. Oh, she was tempted—sorely. The seven months of waiting had been powerfully hard on her, too. She could scarcely credit it. Her one taste of passion had been with her English husband, Alexander, and they'd been together mere months when he'd left her in the port city of Portree on the Isle of Skye and returned to the service of the English lord to whom he owed fealty as a foot soldier. Soon after he'd contracted the smallpox and died, leaving her alone in a strange city with their newborn son. Scarcely risen a week from childbed, she'd spent one of her last precious coins on the bolt of saffron cloth that, once fashioned into a kirtle, would proclaim her as a whore. During those dark days of walking the docks, she'd kept her body numb, her mind blank, and her heart sealed off to anyone save her son. She'd thought herself forever ruined as a woman, too jaded for passion and too bitter for love. But these past seven months of holding Callum to his promise had proven her wrong. For the first time in her life, she knew what it meant to long for someone with all her body, all her mind and aye, all her heart. The sound of his voice through the door sufficed to send warmth flooding her heart and her nether parts in equal measure. Her breasts tingled, her womanhood wept, her empty arms and all the rest of her ached to be filled.
She gave up, surrendered. "One kiss and then you must take your leave."
She lifted the bolt and stepped back. With Callum there was no such thing as stopping at a single kiss, and well they both knew it.
The door flew open. Callum launched himself across the threshold. "Alys, dearling!" He dropped his bundle atop the trestle table, kicked the door closed behind him, and swept her into his arms. Lifting her from her feet, he swung her around. "It feels a lifetime since last I saw you." He set her down and held her away from him, regarding her with burning blue eyes fringed with wicked black lashes. "How have you been keeping yourself since this morn? They've treated you well, have they? I ordered that you be tended as befits not only a laird's lady but a queen."
As always, his tenderness melted her. So long as they stopped with kisses, she would give him as many as he wanted.
She stroked one side of his face, so handsome and so very dear to her, and admitted, "I am not accustomed to being so coddled."
The warm milk-water bath with rose petals, the massage with scented oils rubbed into her fire-warmed flesh, and finally the supper served upon a silver tray in her room had been lovely but overwhelming. And thanks to the services of the nimble little maid he'd insisted on giving her, her best blue gown now hung on a peg to warm before the fire, the rich brocade thoroughly brushed. Callum had pressed her to accept a bolt of cloth of gold and make a new gown from it, but in this she'd refused him. Cloth of gold was reserved for the nobility, but it wasn't humility that held her back. The shimmering fabric reminded her of the bold yellow gown she'd worn when she'd plied the harlot's trade. When she'd entered Brianna's household as a servant, she'd seized her first opportunity to stitch herself a simple blue gown from cloth she'd scavenged from the scrap heap and tossed the hated yellow one into the fire.
Not yellow, not ever again.
His big, warm hands spanned her waist. Of all the men who'd put their hands upon her, her husband included, no one had ever made her feel so wholly safe, so beautifully loved.
He ran his gaze along the length of her, lingering on the swell of her breasts above her shift's smocked bodice, his blue eyes undressing her as surely as his hands would this time tomorrow. "Such a slip of a thing you are, my lady, a wee wisp of a woman, and yet you fill my heart so full that betimes I fear to burst with the love I feel for you."
He still hadn't kissed her. Knowing his wicked ways, she more than suspected he held off deliberately, making her want it, making her want him.
And Alys did want him, oh how she wanted. Her nipples ached, her womanhood throbbed and her mind, dear Lord, her mind… Like flood waters rushing past the failed barrier of a broken dam, her mind fair near to burst with all manner of delicious, devil-made images… Registering the surprise on his handsome face when instead of pulling away she pushed him back against the wall… Drawing up his kilt and tearing off her smock… Smelling his desire, savoring his brine… Straddling him and moving his callused hands to cup her bottom… Spearing him inside her, that first delicious sharp thrust. Were it not for her fear of tempting fickle Fate, she'd gladly forgo any further waiting, forgo any further wanting, and play out every sinfully lovely fantasy.
"Oh, Callum." She let out a choked sob and lifted her head from his chest, trusting herself even less than she did him. "Claim your kiss, my lord, for after it you must make good on your promise and go away."
"Must I?" He lifted her one hand from his chest, turned it over, and kissed the sensitive spot on her palm.
Like one of the archery arrows he so unerringly aimed, the sensation struck straight to her core, raising a blaze of heat, a void of blinding wanting. Imagining him filling her, easing her, stroking her slowly back and forth, she shivered. "Aye, you must. Milread will return at any time."