Mairi had never felt more complete. She awoke slowly, first aware of being so deliciously warm, the featherbed soothing and comfortable even as her bond-mate’s presence surrounded her as completely as the bedclothes. She sighed sleepily, never wanting it to end.
But soon memories of the night before trickled through her consciousness, and she could not help but smile.
Her Garrick was all roughness and bellowing prickles to everyone else, but he had been so very tender with her. Each touch of his hands had been supremely gentle, always ensuring that he was welcome and only caused those delightful flutterings in her lower belly, with none of the shame and nervousness she had feared.
It was perfect.
She giggled softly in rapt fascination of the feeling of being held. She had known the reassurance of his arms before, but now it was rather different. Even in his sleep he embraced her, and the newness of the feeling of skin on skin nearly left her breathless.
They had been bonded for some while now, but she realised how weak and tenuous it had been before. Few had waited so long before completing their sealing, and she wondered if their relationship could have been improved had they surrendered within the first days of their meeting. She could have assuaged his fears far better had they done so, as the pull, the sheer awareness of the other’s presence through their minds and souls was undeniable.
But as she felt his arms constrict all the tighter as he slept, she realised she would exchange none of their past dealings.
For it led them to this moment that was so utterly wonderful that she would not change it for all the world.
And she only felt the tiniest pang of sadness that if she had known how precious this man truly was, she would have willingly sacrificed her right to see her entire people if it meant being his bond-mate.
“Are you awake?” His voice was low and thick from sleep, and she wondered at the intimacy of hearing it. None other would know how he held her close. None other would know each cherished detail of his sudden draw to wakefulness.
“Yes,” she murmured, not wishing to break the quiet peacefulness of the morning with too many words.
Garrick nuzzled into her hair, and she smiled exuberantly at the soft pressure of the kisses he placed there. “And you are well?”
She closed her eyes and burrowed as close to him as she could manage. “So perfectly well...”
Garrick sighed in apparent relief. “Thank the Father. For I woke fearing it was all but a dream, and the thought of losing you...”
If possible, his hold on her tightened although not to the point of discomfort—never that. “Now that I know of your sweetness I do not think I can forget it once more. To be naught but your travelling companion...”
She dared not wriggle about to face him, so instead she tried to offer what relief she could by rubbing delicate patterns into the arms that held her fast. “You need not waste another moment contemplating it, Garrick. You are my bond-mate, my husband, and I shall not let you go. Not when you have finally accepted your place with me.”
He pushed at her shoulder until she lay prone upon her back, and he hovered over her. Not so close to be troublesome and she remembered his previous instruction about tending to their mouths before speaking overly much, but enough that she could look deep into his eyes and judge his sincerity. “I am indeed yours, and I shall never wish to be free. And I can only hope and pray that you find belonging to me not too much of a burden.”
She shook her head and caressed his bared cheek with her free hand. “I accept you gladly, my Garrick. Readily and freely. And I offer myself to you just as eagerly.”
His eyes darkened at her word and for one elating moment she thought he was about to kiss her.
But instead he groaned and rolled away and out of their bed, mumbling and grumbling all the while.
She was about to be hurt by the action, but she could not help but smile when he pulled on his black braies and then proceeded to rifle through his bags with an irritated proficiency, pulling out the little pot of minty poultice that would leave her mouth feeling cool and refreshed when used.
Perhaps she should be annoyed that he could be so distracted by the state of his mouth that he had not acknowledged her submission, but instead she found it tremendously endearing.
She rose from the bed, unsure if she should see about covering her nakedness as he had done. It seemed tedious to don her dress when she hoped to coax him back into bed in another moment, but she did not wish for him to be uncomfortable with her bare skin so readily on display, so she donned his tunic and joined him at the basin to begin their morning ablutions.
“First my cloak and now my tunic. Are you determined to keep me from wearing clothing?” His tone was light and teasing, and she relished the simplicity of their first morning as a properly married—and sealed—pair.
“I believe you promised me clothes of my own. I am merely encouraging you to uphold your vow by claiming your own garments as my hostages.”
She rinsed the last of the poultice away, her teeth and mouth feeling satisfactorily cleansed. She took a step back and gestured over her newly clothed figure. “I think it suits me rather well.” She walked in a small circle, admiring the freedom of movement without long skirts to tangle about her ankles. “Perhaps I shall wear this today instead of my gown.”
Garrick dried his mouth on a nearby linen, and growled lowly in his throat before stalking toward her. “If you think I shall share the view of your delectable legs with the likes of any of these miscreants, you are sadly mistaken.”
She could not help the shriek of delight when he scooped her into his arms, swiftly returning them to the bed, mimicking their earlier positions. “Now, I believe you had just finished assuring me that you are mine.”
Mairi could contain the last few of her giggles, and she tucked an errant lock of his hair behind his ear. “I believe I might have suggested such a thing, yes.”
He kissed her. She tasted mint and perhaps a bit of lemon and something that was entirely Garrick and when she felt his body respond to the ferocity of his passion, hers awakened in kind.
But before they could continue their pursuits, a timid knock interrupted them, and Mairi felt an equal sense of irritation at whoever dared approach them.
Garrick groaned and glared at the offending door, though at first he made no move to answer it. But when the knock echoed again he stood, quickly donning his breeches. For a moment he searched for his tunic but then cast her an exasperated look when he remembered that he was incapable of covering his upper body due to her thievery.
She merely grinned impishly.
He stormed to the entrance and flung open the door with great force and Mairi could not help but feel a moment’s pity for whoever had dared encroach upon their privacy.
A young girl lurched back and Mairi recognised her as the one who had escorted them to the bath the night before. She was pretty and small in stature, with hair dark and cut short—only slightly longer than Garrick’s. Mairi thought it quite curious for a female.
“Beggin’ your pardon, m’lord. I was told to fetch your breakfast.” She did indeed carry a heavily laden tray, and Garrick grabbed it with a none-too gentle hand.
“Out, girl.” She nodded furiously and bobbed a polite curtsey before scurrying back down the hallway. Garrick shut the door with a bang, and Mairi tried to decide if she was upset by the sudden change in mood. But as she watched her bond-mate bluster and frighten the poor servant who only followed her order, she found the entire episode terribly amusing.
For it meant that he valued his time with her, he lashed out at those who kept him from her, and there was something endearing about such a notion.
He placed the tray on a small table before the fire, flanked by two cushioned chairs. Garrick ran a hand through his slightly dishevelled hair, and found a spare tunic that he put on along with their shared cloak and his boots. Before she could begin to feel forlorn at his apparent departure, he moved toward the bed once more, placing a kiss on her waiting lips. “See what they have offered for breakfast, I shall return shortly.”
She suddenly remembered that there was one particular need that he had not been able to see to yet this morning, and nodded her assent. She did not know why she never required the privy as he called it, but it seemed a troublesome thing to need and she was glad to be free of it.
But with the mention of food she rose, but now that she no longer had her husband’s heated gaze to warm her, her legs felt exposed and chilled in the morning air. The fire had long since died to only the barest of embers, and with great care she threw in a log settled beside the great stone hearth.
At least, she hoped that was the function for the rather considerable pile that remained there. But as the lingering bits of flame found purchase on the dry and cracked piece of wood, she knew there was little she could do to stop it.
She would certainly not risk her limbs by trying to rescue it.
Satisfied that the room would soon begin to warm itself, she settled into one of the chairs and tucked her legs up into the overly large tunic. She almost regretted that he had taken their cloak, but quickly pushed away such thoughts. He was not the one settled before a fire, and therefore had far greater need for its protection.
Next her attention turned to breakfast. She had not managed to eat much the night before and her stomach suddenly protested her lack of enthusiasm for the meal. The tray was covered neatly by white linen cloths, and as Mairi removed them she supposed it was to keep in the heat that seemed intent on escaping from the prepared dishes.
It did not seem to be meat. If she was to speculate she would suppose it was some kind of plant-life or grain, but she was not going to risk it. Garrick had told her to see to their food, but that did not mean she would begin to eat it without him first identifying its contents.
Before long Garrick returned, and to her great pleasure he shed their cloak and his boots before joining her before the fire.
To herit was a fire at least. There were flames and a satisfying glow, but Garrick chuckled as he looked at it.
She would have been affronted if she did not so enjoy the sound.
“That was a very good attempt, Mairi. But let us see if we can warm you a bit more with a larger offering.”
He added a few more logs and poked at it with a great iron stick that rested beside the hearth, and indeed it produced a much more robust heat than what she had managed.
“Now, what meagre rations did they provide us?”
He sank into the chair beside her and uncovered the rest of their breakfast. There was nothing meagre about it, and Mairi rather thought King Drostan was trying to lure Garrick into participating in the tournament from the sheer amount of foodstuffs he proffered alone.
Garrick watched with amusement as she took one of the plump red fruits and devoured it greedily. “It pleases me to know there is something you can identify on your own.”
She blushed even as she raised her chin in defiance of his teasing censure. “It is no fault of mine that your kind makes their food into things unrecognisable to the natural world.”
He snorted but conceded. “I believe this is some kind of warm oat mush.” He poked at it thoughtfully with yet another metal device, this one with an end that she assumed was for scooping.
“Perfectly safe from any of your woodland friends,” he added with a touch of resignation. She shook her head at him. Mairi supposed that if he had little qualms about taking human life then using an animal for food was no great burden, but she could not help but remember each time she had witnessed the birth of a new little of kits to a bright red mother fox. Or when she had stumbled upon a lightly spotted fawn as his mother stood protectively over its nest of grasses, ready to defend him with her life if the need arose.
Garrick poured a generous helping of white liquid onto the oats, and even sprinkled a few of what appeared to be dried berries before handing it to her. “My lady bond-wife.”
Mairi smiled at the name although she tried to cover it with a roll of her eyes and a huff.
Their breakfast was most satisfying, especially the strawberries. Garrick encouraged her to pay more attention to the prepared oats but she sneaked as many of the succulent fruits as she could—though when she caught him eating quite a few himself she suspected his admonishment was for fear she would eat them all herself and leave none for his own feasting.
Finally, after they had eaten their fill, Garrick poured steaming cups of something he called tea, and after assessing her for a long moment, placed another dash of the creamy liquid and also some strange looking granules before handing it to her.
To his own cup he merely added a dash of the white fluid before settling against the back of the chair with a contented sigh.
She took a tentative sip. It was sweet and mild and so wonderfully warm that she accepted it most gratefully.
“Once you have finished we must dress.”
Mairi looked at him reprovingly. “I thought you were not going to participate in the tournament.”
He smirked at her. “Put away such looks, little nymph, they do not become you. I intend to see to your wardrobe.”
She hesitated, not certain how she felt at the idea. She knew she needed more gowns, and possibly the dreaded shoes that would at least make her capable of walking through the forest without injury, but a large part of her wanted to resist this change. Her gown was one of her last bits of home, and she thought it wrong to abandon it so quickly.
But her bond-mate wanted to indulge her, and was that not what she dreamt of him doing for so long? And he would think her unappreciative of his efforts, and that she could not allow.
She sniffed imperiously, much as he was prone to do, and let her toes peek out from their cocoon in the tunic. “But must I wear the shoes? They seem so... cumbersome.”
“You must at least try them, Mairi. If you find them so deeply offensive then I shall promise to carry you wherever it is your whim. But you might find that you appreciate the warmth as I am certain your toes become cold on occasion.”
She blinked at him innocently. “But I have you to warm my feet now as we sleep. I hardly need shoes for that any longer.”
It amazed her that her simple teasing could inspire such a reaction. He rose swiftly from his chair, taking her cup along with his own and hastily returned them to the tray before kneeling before her. And it was a testament to his height that she had to lean down only the smallest bit to receive his kiss, and she felt his exuberance at her words through their bond.
Eventually he pulled away, resting his forehead against hers as they tried to steady their breathing. “You are far better than I could ever deserve.”
She smiled at him and could not help but place another kiss upon his lips. “Sometimes it is not for us to decide. Sometimes we need only be thankful.”
And this time there was no mistaking the slight sheen in his eyes, now a darkened amber, that bespoke how tenderly he held this moment. “I love you, little nymph. So very much.”
She gently wiped the corner of his eye with her thumb, once more revelling in the openness they now shared. “I know. You show me every day.”
His eyes, so wide and vulnerable, beseeched her. “And you love me?”
And she smiled at him sadly that he should even have to ask it. “So very much, my Garrick. I do love you.”
There was no answering kiss, no move to the bed to consummate their expression of admiration. She only held him to her as silent sobs shook his shoulders and his tunic absorbed the evidence of his relief. “Do I not show you enough? It was so obvious that you loved me through your actions and deed that I did not need to ask. Do you require more of me? How can I show you my love?”
He pulled away, and had she not felt the trembling of his frame as she held him, she would not have known that he had cried at all. “Hold me close, touch me, stay with me. That is all I ask.”
Her devoted knight.
He looked so very frightened as if he asked too much of her, when in truth he only craved the affections that she longed to bestow. “I knew that loving you would be no great hardship.”
He scoffed but did not protest when she rose and tugged at his hands until he once more towered over her, and this time she burrowed into his embrace—where she always longed to be. “I think this is what it is to be happy. It is rather nice, do you not agree?”
His arms held her all the more firmly and she felt him stoop to press kisses into her hair, and she could not help but smile. “Aye, it is happiness. And you shall spoil me with it.”
She almost felt forlorn when he released her, but he held her hand and eased her through the process of dressing with such care that it nearly left her breathless. His hands were gentle as he guided her arms through the sleeves, and while the night before he had kissed the curve of her spine as it was revealed to him, this time he consecrated each bit of flesh before it disappeared as the laces were pulled taut.
Mairi could not help but notice that he had ensured she was never wholly naked to his view. He had left the tunic in place until he had pulled her gown over her hips, only then removing his garment from her. She knew he found her pleasing to the eye, but already a feeling of unease was settling over her. And though she often cursed her inability to keep from pestering him, the enquiry escaped before she could contain it.
“Do you not like to see me bare?”
His eyes widened, and much to her surprise, he laughed. It was an incredulous sound but one suffused with genuine humour, and it caused her to blush hotly from her evidently idiotic question.
“Nothing could be further from the truth, little nymph. But we have things to tend to today and should I see you exposed and at my mercy yet again, I would be helpless to do anything but take you to my bed. So I shall keep you as covered as possible until the time is right to bear the sweet torture of having such perfection uncovered to me once more.”
She had never imagined what it would be like to be so desired. And he spoke so sincerely that she could not even begin to doubt that he meant every word.
This was having a bond-mate. It was desiring and fulfilling, of loving and protecting, whether it be in body or, perhaps even more importantly, the heart of your chosen mate.
“I choose you, Garrick. I might not have had the opportunity when we first met, but I do so now. Willingly and without reservation. I choose you as my bond-mate and my husband. For now and always.”
And perhaps she had sworn to do so yesterday in the little stone chapel nestled in the woods. But it was only now, with their bond thrumming with new life and her bond-mate staring at her with such adoration that she truly understood.
A mating could not be explained, it had to be felt and experienced.
And as she helped him dress as well and he proceeded to tuck her into his side and they made their way to whatever shops he felt would best suit her, she knew that she loved him more than anything in the world.