Mairi awoke to the sound of the door shutting firmly. She blinked sleepily, trying to remember if there were any dreams lingering in her mind, something she now wished for almost nightly. Garrick said he had experienced a vision of her adar, and she too had seen him the night of their initial bonding, and she could not help but hope that he would come to her again.
No matter how much she now loved her bond-mate, that did not negate the affection she still held for her people.
But there were none, and although her first impulse was to rise and greet Garrick properly, she hesitated, remembering her earlier teasing that he should awaken her with a kiss. So she kept her eyes closed and waited for his movement, only to hear his boots take him to the seats before the fire and not to her side as she so desired.
It took a very great effort not to pout.
“Garrick? Are you well?”
He did not turn to look at her, only stared into the flames that still burned brightly even with his absence.
A feeling of trepidation settled in her lower belly, and for a moment she tugged at their bond, trying to ascertain if he was angry with her—or perhaps his meeting had been dreadful and the person had hurt him...
But there was nothing that indicated a physical pain, only a deep mistrust that nearly chilled her.
She rose swiftly from the bed, hurrying forward to better assess his condition.
He did not even glance at her, and she knew something was terribly wrong.
Mairi knelt before him, her hands pressing and coaxing until finally he relented, his eyes meeting hers.
And when she saw them, with all the pain and barely concealed anger so easily visible, she almost wished she had not.
“How could you not tell me?”
She blinked, holding firm against the impulse to pull away from him. “Tell you what? What has happened?”
He shook his head disbelievingly, returning his glare and his tightly sealed lips to the fireside.
Where had their lovely morning gone? Where he spoiled and kissed and made her feel so very cared for?
She remembered the man who had asked to meet with him, and she could not help a feeling of ire to overtake her that whatever they had discussed had put her Garrick into such a foul mood.
“Please, speak plainly. I cannot explain if I do not know what has upset you.”
He scoffed, shaking his head in apparent disbelief. “The fact that you were not disturbed by it troubles me enough. But that you might also have...”
A pained look flittered across his features, and it was all she could do to keep from smoothing away each line of distress with her fingers. Something assured her that he would not appreciate her touch, not now.
“Did that man suggest that I have done something wrong? You have been with me most always and I know I often speak strangely and am not skilled yet in my manner but I am trying! I hope I do not embarrass you.”
That had been her grave worry for some time. Garrick often seemed more amused by her different ways rather than annoyed, but she still waited to hear from an observer that she was troublesome and uncouth, wholly unworthy of being his bond-mate.
And the way he refused to look at her stung acutely, and she wished with all her heart that this uneasiness between them could pass.
But it could not, not until he spoke to her.
So she sat and waited, allowing herself the comfort of smoothing patterns into his covered knees with her fingertips, waiting as patiently as she could for him to sort out whichever thoughts were tormenting him.
Finally, with a shuddering sigh he grasped her wrist to bring her touches to a halt, his eyes quite admirably cloaking his emotions.
“Why did you not tell me that the king had made wrongful advances toward you?”
Mairi glanced at him sharply, not expecting that to be what had caused his sudden withdrawal. He had said that such was the manner of the king—that he liked to pry into bondings that were not his own and Garrick had not seemed overly alarmed. It was only on her behest that he had promised his increased discretion.
There was also the niggling worry that if she did divulge his actions, Garrick would have somehow found her to blame. In the beginning of their association he had consistently accused her of perceived unfaithfulness, and what if he thought that the king’s proposition—his touch—held appeal?
“You would have been angry that he touched my hair and that he questioned our marriage. You would have been angry with me. I only wished for us to have a pleasant evening.” She looked down at her wrist, still held within her bond-mate’s grasp. “I thought we had succeeded.”
His grip on her tightened, though not to the point of pain. But the action still made her glance at him, and his eyes burned. “Is that why you did it? You did not truly wish to be with me but took the word of a black-hearted usurper that our marriage was not valid unless you submitted to my attentions?”
Mairi gaped at him, her shock preventing her from forming an adequate reply. “You were there, you know of...”
Garrick shook his head, the demeanour of the surly and jaded knight that she had first come to know from him returning so swiftly she had to blink away the beginnings of tears.
“Do you not see, Mairi? That would make far more sense than for you to have...” He released her, his hands going to his hair and tugging fiercely, and she could do nothing but stare and hope that she could provide the words he so desperately needed to hear that would assure him of her love.
And then she knew.
“Than for me to love you? For me to willingly accept you into my body as an expression of that love?” Unwelcome as her touch might have been, she could not bear their separation. So with a steadying breath to provide her confidence she climbed into his lap, pressing her palms against the smooth, perfect flesh of his face and imploring him to believe her.
“You have lived your life accepting a lie, my Garrick. You are desirable. You are loved. And you are my mate. I did not seal myself to you because of the words of the king, nor out of misplaced obligation. I did so because I craved being close to you, both in bond and in body, and I do not regret that union. Please do not taint it with mistrust.”
He stared at her for a long moment, and she allowed him time to think and consider—to feel her sincerity as she begged their bond to confirm what she so truly experienced. At no time had she thought of their sealing with anything but exaltation and delight. For him to even ponder, if just for a moment, that she was only a begrudging participant...
It was too painful and distasteful for words.
He trembled in her arms and not for the first time she cursed the life he had led. No child should have been so hurt by their mother, and people should not have been so cruel as to blame him for it—as if he had been anything but an innocent thrown to the whims and mercies of those unfit for the blessed burden.
“Why did that man tell you these things? Did he simply wish to upset you?”
Garrick shook his head, the movement stilted by her continued touch. “We spoke of other matters. I believe he wished me to know of it so I could protect you better. I shall protect you better. He should not have touched you—no man should ever touch you.”
She tilted her head, determined to understand him fully. “But the king danced with a woman who was not his wife. And many men and women touched at the feast without any ill effects. Do you not wish for me to be touched because you doubt my faithfulness or because you fear they will do me harm?”
His hands, once settled at her waist and supporting her position upon him moved to brush away the hair that tangled over her shoulders, and there was a wildness to his action that unnerved her. “Do you not see? That my fear is that you do not... cannot love me as deeply and as passionately as I adore you. I know of your fidelity, Mairi. The repugnance you exhibit at merely the suggestion is plain, even to me. But I do not trust these other men—that something so pure and good can be within their midst and that their desire to possess such a thing would not drive them into madness.”
He pulled at her gently until her forehead rested upon his, and she relished how the curtain of her hair shrouded them in a moment birthed only in the intimacy of their mutual understandings.
“Yours are a strange people.”
He smiled, softly and sadly and she could not help but press an all too hasty kiss upon his lips, helpless to deny the impulse that bade her do so.
“Aye, little nymph. But I have been remiss in teaching you of their ways—even the unpleasant ones I wish you need never know.”
He shifted, pulling away from her slightly and easing against the back of the chair, his hands returning to rest lightly upon her waist. And though perhaps he simply did not exert any great effort to conceal it, or perchance she was coming to know his expressions all the more, Mairi could readily perceive he was concealing something from her. “What else did you discuss? Something still troubles you.”
Garrick sighed and he grasped a lock of her hair, playing with it absently. “I would take you away from here. I would hide you away from any man who dared threatened to disrupt what we have made, but I cannot. I cannot leave Callum and he is yet unable to travel.” His grip tightened around her waist and his eyes were imploring. “You understand that, do you not? That I cannot leave him? I will protect you, my dear-heart, from all things. But for now that means we must remain.”
Her brow furrowed, not fully understanding. “What is this great danger that you see? Many men have made advances toward me, but I am quick and they have not succeeded. The king that is not yours is hardly different.”
Garrick released a careful breath and she immediately regretted her words. Eldared’s bond-mate never liked to hear tales of the men they encountered, and he fully embraced the sanctity of their sealing. She should be more mindful of Garrick’s propensity to question the significance of their bonding and not reference the desires of other men—not when it would only serve to upset him.
“I am sorry, my Garrick. I should not question you. I am certain if you sense a danger that it is valid.”
Garrick groaned and closed his eyes as his head fell against the tall back of the chair with a gentle thump. “You must think me a jealous brute, little nymph—that I do not trust you to hold true to your vows. This king is not like other men, he is cold and hard and delights in the suffering of others. Far too many sovereigns share these attributes and it is one of the reasons I refuse to swear my loyalty to them, for none is truly deserving. But this one... Drostan has gone too far, Mairi. For he has threatened you.”
She leaned back so rapidly that if it had not been for Garrick’s quick intervention she might have landed on the carpet beneath his feet. “What do you intend to do?”
She knew of his profession. She knew of his penchant for violence and death. But she knew equally that it did not define him. It was his trade, much as Harold’s was to spin course materials into the silken thread that so aptly repaired her gown.
Yet as she looked at him, his eyes shuttered and his face grim, she swallowed back her arguments.
She would not ask him to confirm her suspicions, nor would she press him to reveal whatever he planned.
For in truth, it was quite simple.
She either trusted this man or she did not.
And how could there be love without trust?
And when he was about to answer, to offer either an explanation or a harsh retort that she remain out of his affairs, she pressed her lips to his firmly. For when their lips met and her very soul tingled with new life, she knew that it was love.
“I rescind my enquiry; I do not wish to know. Just as you shall trust me that I love you in all things, I shall trust that you will try to do what is best for us.”
He chuckled lowly, and there was humour in the sound that warmed her heart. “Only try, little nymph? You have so little confidence in me?”
She smirked, unable to conceal the part of her that was deeply aware that he was prone to his own bouts of foolishness. “I do not promise to never have my own input. But I am certain between Callum and my own contributions you can be made to see sense when it is required.”
His smile faded. “I must hear the words, Mairi. Do you understand why we cannot leave yet?”
She nodded. “The man who can make Callum well is incapacitated by a fungus. I know well of such maladies...”
She dropped her gaze thinking of her mother. Once so very beautiful, only to have her strength and vitality stripped away as her tree withered and fell, leaving her poor adar without his beloved bond-mate.
Mairi’s lower lip trembled as she thought of him alone once more, not even his nymphling to ease his sorrow.
Garrick had begun to laugh at her description but he quickly quieted at her reaction. “Mairi, what is wrong?”
“Do you think that I shall ever see my adar again?”
His eyes softened and he drew her to him, holding her safely in his arms, reminding her of all the reasons that this melancholy was worth experiencing. “Oh, dear-heart. If I had such power I would make it so that you could see him, that you would never know the sorrow of losing one you loved. I do not pretend to understand why your people would spurn you for something that was not of your own doing, but I should hope that one day you might be reunited. If only for a moment.”
He held for a while, his hands soothing and caressing as he offered the comfort of his presence. He did not ask her if she found him worth it. He did not ask if given the opportunity she would pick her people over their sealing, and she was glad of it. For it meant that even through their bond he was able to feel the gentle thrum, the ever present reassurance that what passed between them was real.
“I am sorry that you do not have a family to miss as well.”
She felt a kiss pressed upon her temple. “Are you? I find that my lack of kinship does have an unexpected benefit.” His mouth lowered closer to her ear, and she could not help but shiver as his lips barely skimmed the flesh beneath it. “It has afforded me far more privacy with you than many other marriages enjoy.”
She pulled back sharply, her own eyes darkening at the sultry timbre of his voice. But before she gave, before she allowed herself to forget each semblance of pain and grief that still lingered as she kissed her bond-mate and coaxed him into expressing their love once more, she could not help but stroke his cheek fondly and murmur, “You will not leave Callum for he is your friend. And you do not abandon those you love. And I would not esteem you as highly as I do if you made any other choice.”
She rose carefully, determined not to embarrass herself by tripping over his feet and ruining her intention. She took his hand, and she revelled in the blatant look of desire that crossed his features, but just as she was about to tug, to pull him to the bed and welcome the ravishment that was sure to follow, another timid knock upon the door interrupted her slow dance of seduction.
And as she watched him scowl and glare at the door—to which she could not help but provide her own pout of displeasure—she hurried to the impediment before he could even rise from the chair, determined to deal with the intruder herself. While she did not appreciate being kept from him, she did not want some unfortunate soul to bear his ill will when they were almost certainly only following the bidding of another.
The girl who brought them breakfast was again holding a tray, though she visibly relaxed when she noticed Mairi was the one to allow her entrance. “Beggin’ your pardon, m’lady, I hope I was not interrupting. The lord made it ever so clear that I was to bring your meal as soon as he had returned.”
Garrick grunted from his place in the chair, and Mairi gestured for her to place the tray on the table by the fire. She considered taking their platter of food and dismissing the obviously frightened girl but she was afraid that such would be thought rude—and she did so wish to conduct herself properly.
The girl tripped over the corner of the rug when she noticed Garrick’s glower, but she righted herself before all of their meal capsized. Some goblets did splash however and with bright cheeks and lowered eyes she mumbled her apologies, wiping up the mess hurriedly, her every action belying her belief that Garrick would beat her senseless at any moment.
Mairi cocked her head to the side, her eyes narrowing. “Have you a mate that hurts you?”
The maid froze in her frenzied movements, and her eyes, brown and wide, flickered to meet hers. “M’lady?”
“Was the question confusing to you? My deepest apologies, I often do not mind my words. I suppose in this land you would call him a husband. Do you have a husband that hurts you?”
Mairi briefly glanced at Garrick and noticed a strange knowing smirk on his face as he watched their interlude. Her eyes narrowed.
Mairi nodded, glad to hear it confirmed but not her material point. “Then do not presume that mine would do so.”
The girl gave a deep curtsey. “Of course, m’lady.” She turned to address Garrick, although she would not meet his eyes. “I’m sorry, m’lord, I didn’t mean any offence.”
He dismissed her with a wave of his hand, and with only one last passing look at Mairi she hurried from the room.
“It is not often I have such a fine defender, my lady. To what do I owe such a particular demonstration?”
Mairi sighed and sank into the chair opposite him, already missing the warmth of sitting with her bond-mate. “I do not like the opinion others have of you. Many are quick to think that you will harm me, and others assume that you will harm them. You are a better man than they believe, and it is my right to defend you.”
She looked at him quickly, suddenly unsure. “Is it not?”
He laughed quietly and this time he was the one to rise and tug at her arm, pulling her back into his embrace, their meal temporarily ignored. “It is your right if you wish it to be. But I must provide one small observation that you seem to have overlooked. They have a reason to fear me, Mairi, for they are not guaranteed their safety. You need never have such apprehension, for I would never do you harm.”
Her lips pursed and she stared at him, trying to determine if he was in earnest. “You do not hurt people without reason, of that I know. Even if she spilled every drop of ale onto the carpets you would have yelled and blustered but you would not have struck her. And I will not have them thinking so, not when I am near. I should feel deceitful if I allowed them to tremble at your presence when they are in no true danger.”
He stroked her hair and hummed, his eyes soft and his touch affectionate—as it always had been. “My dear-heart, you think me a better man than I am. But I cannot seem to find the will to argue with you. Not when there is a warm meal and a bed that would prove far more worthy of our attentions.”
And when he gave her one last kiss before they ate their fill and he carried her to their bed and did indeed see to her ravishment, Mairi found that she had no objections whatsoever.