Any lingering doubts about the bond that supposedly connected Mairi to him disappeared as soon as he felt it.
It was simple to assume that the newness of being intimate with her could have made him believe that he felt her own pleasure in addition to his own, overwhelming and nearly crippling in its intensity.
But the fear, the tangible discomfort that resonated low in his belly and filled him with the desire to flee was too real to ignore. And so he nearly bolted from the white gelding, only haphazardly releasing the reins and giving a shout to the stable boy before sprinting toward the castle.
He had never hated stairs more in his life, and this fortress seemed obnoxiously fond of them.
He almost turned in the direction of their bedchamber, nearly certain he would burst in to find his poor beautiful Mairi being pinned down and taken against her will, so acute was the feeling of dread that echoed through their bond.
Yet at the last moment he was drawn down the corridor toward the dining hall, and he felt his anger grow that the blasted Cyrus would have thought her safe in the company of so many unruly knights and noblemen, too drunk and stupid to realise that she was only an innocent with little knowledge of their carousing ways.
He felt revulsion and despair mingling together in a nauseating combination as he opened the large doors, his eyes scanning the room until they settled on her.
And her relief was palpable as her eyes met with his, and he could not tear them away, not even to glower and promise death to the man whose arms and lips were so close to her.
The anger blossomed as he saw the man charged with her care seated so close and doing nothing, but he knew he would deal with such shortcomings later. For now he could revel in her faith in him—that he had indeed been able to come before more harm had befallen her.
And he pushed down the guilt that threatened to engulf him that he had left her. No matter how he threatened Cyrus’s wife, Mairi was his to protect and no others.
He strode forward anxious to hold her in his arms and soothe away her fears as best he could, no matter how inadequate the comfort.
“Garrick, we were afraid you would miss our little party completely! I cannot tell you the depths of my disappointment that you did not join in our games.”
The rage simmered.
And while he wished to grasp one of the knives set about the table and give him an intimate demonstration as to just how bloody a death could be, such would only make matters worse. And no matter how much he wished to allow that impulse to take hold, he would not subject his little nymph to such a grisly visage—not if he could help it.
Perhaps it truly did not matter anymore since she had already witnessed the death of one man, but she would know that this one held much more personal significance. And no matter how much she assured him that she would accept him in all things, he would not willingly subject her to seeing precisely of what her husband was capable.
“I hope that your disappointment has not kept you from enjoying the rest of your tournament. I am certain your knights live only to please you.”
He wanted to flee from the room, taking Mairi in his arms and whisking her away from anymore of this useless conversation. She rose as soon as he came close enough and threw her arms about him, practically clinging to him as she embraced him. “I am so glad you have come back.”
Garrick only allowed himself a moment to hold her close, reminding himself firmly that she was not in fact injured, only rightfully upset by the unwanted attentions of a man far too accustomed to receiving whatever he wanted, simply because he desired it.
He broke away far sooner than he would have wished, and he could easily see the hurt and entreaty in her eyes as she implored him for more contact. But all he could offer was his hand for her to clutch and hold as he took her newly vacated chair, putting her as far from the king as he could manage.
Cyrus refused to look at him, and Garrick could plainly see his hands trembling even as he cut through a piece of suckling pig.
Good. He should be frightened of him.
Whether or not he fulfilled his threat from earlier, there would be strong words levied against Cyrus for his lack of forethought.
“Please, Garrick, can we not retire? I do not wish to eat any more.”
His heart clenched at the way she begged him. She had leaned close so as not to be overheard, and he could see the remnants of tears in her eyes.
Damn them all.
“As soon as it is safe, dear-heart. I would not allow you to endure this for no reason.”
The reason of course was that he needed to find a moment to place the foxglove into Drostan’s wine. He had already missed the large tureens of soup that could have easily covered the taste of his chosen poison, but the main course was too dry and any additions far too noticeable to prove a possibility.
It would be far easier if they were seated in their places from the night before, but it would be too conspicuous to move now.
He looked down at the plate before him and noticed the strawberries scattered messily about, the guilt eating at him once more. “Would you still like them?”
She shook her head forcefully. “Please do not make me eat it.”
He glanced at her in concern, knowing he would press her to tell him precisely what had transpired in his absence. She had greatly enjoyed the ones that had been brought to their room and he would not allow her to associate them with this occurrence. To rob her of even the smallest pleasure was not to be born.
But now was not the time to soothe, and he nodded and added a few of the more innocuous selections to her plate before filling his own. He would not press her to eat if she truly could not manage it, but he needed her to know the option was there should she change her mind.
A knight approached the head table, drawing Drostan’s attention as they began discussing a particularly harrowing match between neighbouring counties, and Cyrus took the opportunity to engage him.
“He did not harm her. I would not have brought her at all except he had... suggested that if your departure was true that perhaps he would seek her out in your chamber. It seemed more prudent to circumvent the possibility.”
Garrick took a bite, not paying much attention to the flavour. “She is trembling. Do not make the mistake of thinking that I do not hold you at least partially responsible.”
Cyrus sighed, and although Garrick expected him to quail and offer useless platitudes, instead he squared his shoulders and addressed him fully, though his voice remained low. “Do not threaten my Bonnie. If you are displeased you are welcome to take your vengeance on me, but she is not to be touched. You are a coward if you think harming a defenceless girl is a worthy punishment.”
Garrick’s eyebrow rose, his tone sardonic. “Cowardly? Nay. I would say it would be mightily effective.”
Cyrus paled. “Do not. I will not exchange one terror for another, and she has suffered enough at the hands of others.”
Garrick hummed noncommittally and took a sip of wine. He did not truly consider the possibility of harming the girl. It would be efficient to be sure and a few bruises might well reinforce the point that Mairi’s safety, both in mind as well as body, was to be a priority.
But he was not such a man.
And he could not in all good conscience hold his Mairi close knowing he had beaten a serving girl only moments before.
Not that he would have engaged in such behaviour prior to knowing her. Even he had limits, few as they may be.
“Then I suggest you take this far more seriously than you currently do. Perhaps you do not mind your wife being accosted whilst in a crowded room but I can assure you, I do.”
Cyrus had the audacity to glare at him. “Bonnie was humiliated before the entire court. She is to be their queen one day and yet they stood and laughed and called her whore.”
Garrick shrugged. “I refuse to quibble about who has suffered more by his hands. I was under the impression there was a larger goal in all of this—one that includes me being allowed access to his goblet.”
Cyrus’s gaze flickered to the cup in question and Garrick wanted to strike him. One did not look at the very device that would soon bring about a man’s demise. Glances were easily followed, and this was to leave no trace.
Some people took exception to acts of treason.
He shook his head, finding man’s fickle sense of morality to be fairly disgusting. It was acceptable to allow a man to terrorise the female populous simply because he sat upon a throne after the dying wish of his father, but to force him to cease such harassment would be a punishable offence.
Garrick made himself take a few more bites, acutely aware of the poor little nymph at his side that only stared down at her plate, quivering and sniffling as she held back tears. None too gently Garrick jabbed his elbow into Cyrus’s ribs, causing him to jerk and cry out in pain. While he did derive a very great satisfaction at the man’s discomfort, he watched with approval as Cyrus managed to jostle the king’s arm as he made to take a sip, spilling large quantities of wine in the process.
“Now look what you have done!”
Cyrus rubbed at his chest, scowling at Garrick.
He gave him a pointed look, and Cyrus’s eyes widened.
Of course there was a greater purpose.
“My apologies, Uncle, I thought I felt something under the table.”
Drostan cast him a withering glare. “Like what precisely? Has a ghost taken up residence within my dining table and it seeks to molest you as you eat?”
The colour of Cyrus’s ears betrayed his embarrassment and Garrick could not help but roll his eyes at his reaction. Despite his willingness to instigate this venture, he clearly did not have the self-control required to master the subtle nuisances necessary to divert undue attention.
The king’s personal wine fetcher hurried forward, her pitcher still clasped tightly in her hands even as she tried to wipe up the mess as best she could.
“Here, girl, give me that before you do yourself harm.”
Garrick took the jug from her hastily and waited until she made to dry the king, her cheeks stained crimson as she tried to ignore the sovereign’s lascivious smirk as her hands brushed against his brocade jerkin.
He did not even glance down into the waiting wine and kept his focus steadily on his intended target. His hands strayed into his pocket and found the small pouch of foxglove. He did not hesitate before allowing a generous sprinkling to find purchase in the dark liquid, and he swirled it around surreptitiously before returning the sachet to its hiding place.
Garrick did not know if Mairi caught his action, and he prepared himself for the questions she would ask when they were alone.
But for now he returned the pitcher to the serving girl and watched carefully to ensure that she did indeed refill the goblet before moving to return to her post, ever watchful should he require more libations.
And for half a moment he readied himself for the plan to fail should the king decide he wished to retire and change his garments, but instead he pinched the retreating girl’s backside with a raucous laugh, and dousing his perverse amusement with his newly poured wine.
“Perhaps I should thank you for your clumsiness if it means being handled so by such a pretty thing!”
Cyrus returned to his seat with a huff, and Garrick noted the trembling in his fingers. He wondered absently if it was from barely concealed anger or from fear, as he must know what Garrick had managed to add during the commotion.
The effects would not be immediate. There would be no gasping for air as he clutched at his throat, his lungs suddenly failing as he choked and begged for mercy.
It would appear like something had spoiled. Garrick pitied the maids who would clean his chamber in the morning when during the night he had given way to the vomit and mess as the body tried to expel the remnants of the poison.
And tragically, in the bought of sickness brought about by slightly spoiled meat, his heart would simply stop.
A kingdom would mourn and Cyrus would take the throne.
And Garrick would drag that blasted smithy from his bed and force him to tend to Callum.
Except they still lacked a home to call their own.
Something was wrong with his Mairi, even beyond the attentions she had suffered this night. She was contented in his arms, of that much he was certain. But there was a sadness that was beginning to overwhelm her, and it had been tugging and distracting him through their bond.
Drostan finished the glass and the maid hurried forward to pour another, and Garrick was satisfied. They had made their appearance, he had fulfilled his contract.
Now he would soothe his wife.
He rose quickly and took Mairi’s hand in his, and she looked at him gratefully.
Drostan’s brow had a light sheen to it and he grimaced slightly as he twisted to face them both, but otherwise there was little evidence that something was wrong. “Going so soon? What possibly could be so interesting in that room of yours? Has your companion finally offered some of her sweetness?”
Garrick stared at him fully, knowing that if he had done his job well—and he was certain he had—this would be the last time he had to bite back his contempt. “Enjoy your feast, your grace. May it be everything you deserve.”
And he tucked Mairi into his side and led her from the room.
She had not stopped shaking and with hurried movements he unclasped his cloak and draped it across her shoulders. “Hush now, little nymph. He cannot hurt you now.”
Whatever composure she had mustered fell away and she collapsed against him.
This was what was unheard of in her world. The fear and horror of a man so bent upon his own lusts that he would threaten to steal her away from those she loved. Her people believed in the sanctity of their unions—a literal interpretation of the vows they had only so recently spoken.
To let no man put asunder.
So complete was her sorrow that she would have fallen had he not pulled her into his arms, carrying her up the stone steps that led to their chamber.
Only it was not their chamber.
It was a room, decadent to be sure, but it was not theirs. Not truly.
And if the experience in this wretched kingdom had assured him of anything, it was that he would need to procure for them a home of their own. No more inns and borrowed beds, but a home—one that Mairi could fill with her goodness and laughter with no shadow of danger to obscure such happiness.
She was but a small weight in his arms and he easily managed to carry her over the threshold and take a seat upon the bed. With only a moment’s hesitation he sat back against the pillows, choosing to dismiss his worry over his boots mussing the blankets. Mairi had wrapped her arms about his neck and he could easily feel the wetness of her tears against his skin, and he rubbed at her back soothingly, speaking words of nonsense that he hoped would comfort her.
Had she really been so very frightened?
“What will become of us now?”
Her words were slightly hoarse from the force of her sobs, and he sighed heavily at her enquiry. “Things shall change, little nymph. They must. This life was not meant for you.”
She pulled back quickly, her face contorted with horror. “You cannot mean to send me away. I shall not let you!”
He touched one of the braids at her temple softly, admiring for the first time how regal she looked with her hair arranged so. “No, dear-heart. I do not mean that. I offered to let you go and you refused, and I have not the strength to make such a sacrifice again.” She seemed satisfied with his assurances for she settled herself once more against his chest and his grip about her tightened. “But we cannot continue as we have been. We must settle somewhere, whether it be in my little dwelling in the woods or the home I should have hoped for you. But I will not continue to expose you to pain and death. Already I have allowed you to witness it twice and I cannot bear to allow it to be a third.”
She sniffled against him and he felt a pang of sympathy course through his heart. “I do not care where we shall live. I only wish us to be safe and together.”
But he cared.
He cared very much indeed.
While the peasantry had safety in their obscurity, he could only provide her true security through title and influence. Physical threats were hardly an issue, but he wanted men to know that she was a lady—that no matter how they might appreciate her beauty from afar, she was a knight’s bride and he would gladly sacrifice his life to keep her far away from any such attentions.
And that could only come from reclaiming the home of his birth.
He would not speak of it now to her. He would let the night pass, would let the uproar of the deceased king at least begin to settle before approaching Cyrus and demanding to know of what had become to his childhood dwelling.
Garrick wondered if Mairi would be enough to drive away the shadows of fear and loneliness that overwhelmed those halls.
“Did you tend to your own hair?”
It should not matter. She had told him how the females of her kind would help her manage it in her youth, and he would not be jealous of others having touched and caressed what he so enjoyed. He refused.
But even so he suddenly wanted the long plait to be unravelled, and for him to take his rightful duty as her husband and tend to it himself.
Mairi sniffed once more, her tears seeming to abate at his query. “Bonnie did it. She even left me a few things to tend to it better.”
Garrick was quiet for a moment. He knew not the first thing about what constituted proper tending, but all he knew was that in this moment, with yet another death lingering upon him and the terror he had felt at the possibility of his Mairi being harmed, he wanted to try.
“You said once that your bond-mate was to help you with it.”
She glanced up at him, her eyes red and tears still clinging to her lashes but yet still so hopeful. “I would not wish to presume.”
Garrick grimaced, hoping that someday she would come to realise that he would give her anything in the world, anything at all, so long as it made her happy.
“You had best retrieve it then.”
He smiled sadly at how enthused she was, bounding from the bed so spritely as she retrieved a intricately carved wooden comb from one of the low tables. He should have offered long before now.
Garrick took the opportunity to remove his boots, cape, and outer doublet and fold them neatly at the end of the bed. There was little reason to rumple them unnecessarily.
She returned to him hurriedly but she also appeared almost shy as she handed it to him and settled between his thighs with her back to him. He swallowed thickly.
Now faced with the prospect he found himself experiencing equal measures of trepidation and delight.
He was being absolutely ridiculous.
He untied the bit of ribbon from the end of her plait and allowed his fingers to begin unwinding the long braid. Never had he felt anything quite like her hair.
And for one foolish moment, he wondered if their daughter would someday inherit anything half so beautiful.
But that thought sent an ache through him as he considered how clearly Mairi wanted for children. There was little guarantee that he would be able to supply her with any, and he wondered if his inability to grant her a proper family of her own would someday cause her to grow resentful.
He shook out the last of her braids and began the process of combing through each lock, taking small sections and ensuring that they glistened and smoothed, no tangle even daring to remain after his ministrations.
Garrick relished the way her shoulders would shiver each time the comb would lightly graze her scalp.
“If we could have no children, would you grow to hate me?”
He should not have spoken of it, but there was something so intimate and relaxed in this moment that he found the words tumbling forth before he could stop them.
She sighed and her head lolled into his waiting hand, and he saw that her eyes were closed and her face showed naught but contentment. “I could never hate you, sweet Garrick. Not when you are so very kind.”
He swallowed, the familiar hollowness returning when the thrill of his occupation waned and the realisation of the severity of actions took hold. “I killed a man this day.”
She nestled back further and he wrapped his arms about her, knowing that he had no right to hold her so close but unable to summon the will to release her even as the confession had poured unbidden from his lips.