She waited until dark, when she knew he would be alone, before sneaking out of Elizabeth’s cottage and making her way to his. Knowing it would be impossible to leave the keep once the gates were closed for the night, she’d made plans with her closest friend who would cover for her absence, if need be. Now, standing near his door and out of the light cast by the full moon, she raised her shaking hand to knock.
Just tell him how you feel and then ask him, she repeated to herself for the hundredth time since leaving Elizabeth behind. It did not ease her nervousness or increase her courage as she forced her hand into a fist and reached up to tap gently on his door.
You are an educated woman, one who can read and write in five languages and one who can understand contracts and negotiating. You are accomplished in skills and knowledge that most men knew not of. You are intelligent, quick-witted and any man would be glad to have you as wife.
The words her stepfather had repeated to her when her confidence waned echoed in her thoughts, but this time, did not bolster her courage. Especially not as Tavis’ steps approached her from the other side of the door, she sucked in a breath and tried to calm her racing heart. When he pulled open the door and whispered her name, she lost any hope of it.
He was so beautiful that it took her breath away.
Beautiful was not the correct word, but it seemed to describe his appearance—wholly-male but incredibly beautiful at the same time. Small braids of his dark brown hair hung from his temples and the rest of it hung loose to his shoulders. His tall, muscular form blocked out any light in the hearth behind him as he filled the doorway. Tavis stepped closer to her, glancing behind her and then out into the path, so close she could feel the heat of his body. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself a moment to enjoy the scent of him, too, before realizing that she must look daft standing before him so.
“Is something wrong, Ciara?” he asked quietly. “It is late.” She took a deep breath and plunged forward on her plan.
“I would speak to you, Tavis,” she said, entwining her fingers together to make their shaking less apparent.
“We should speak in the morning. . . in the keep,” he said, stepping back and depriving her of his scent and his heat. Then a suspicious glint entered his eyes. “Do your parents know you are walking alone through the village in the dark?”
“I am no bairn, Tavis, and have lived here long enough to know every turn of every path and every soul who abides in Lairig Dubh.”
“So your parents have no idea that you run free.”
Ciara worried her teeth along her bottom lip, not giving him an answer. She did not believe he would turn her away without listening to her first. But, the way his face hardened gave her pause that he might do exactly that!
“Best come in out of the chill air,” he said, relenting. He stepped back, opening the door up and waiting for her to enter. Tavis closed the door and walked across the cottage to the hearth. Pointing to a stool nearby, he offered her a seat.
Ciara decided to stand and she walked closer to the low fire burning in the hearth. She’d thought on the words she wanted to say for days, but now, standing in his house, the one he’d shared with his wife Saraid, all of them scattered, leaving her silent.
“Ciara?” His voice, low and deep, sent waves of pleasure and anticipation through her, forcing her to gather her thoughts and speak of the matter between them. Rather than mincing words, she sought the candor they always shared and got right to the heart of it.
“I have come to speak to you about the matter of marriage, Tavis,” she blurted out. Then she sat down on the offered stool, since now her legs trembled as much as her hands did. Quite proud of how she’d been so very forthright with him, the frown that furrowed his brow surprised her.
“Marriage? Does someone seek your hand then?” he asked. “Does Duncan favor the suit?”
“Nay, no one has offered yet,” she said. Not as yet, not a serious offer though with her age and her dowry, ‘twas only a matter of time. She wanted to get this settled before they would begin in earnest.
“Do you fear marriage then?” he asked, concern lacing his tone in spite of his own terrible experience in the marital state. “Marian would speak candidly to you about that, lass.”
Ciara closed her eyes for a moment, prayed for courage and then said the words that would damn her or give her her heart’s desire.
“I would marry you, Tavis.”
The air in the cottage stilled and not a sound could be heard, though Ciara was certain her heart pounding against her chest must be loud. Tavis did not move, his gaze remained on her face, but he gave no sign that he heard her or, indeed, that he even yet breathed. Moments passed, mayhap hours did too, while she waited for him to say something to her. Heat flushed in her cheeks and her stomach began to grip. She brushed some loosened hair back away from her face and then repeated her words, for by some chance, he must not have understood them the first time.
“I said I would marry you.”
“Ciara,” he said, her name on his lips was almost a plea. “Do not. . . .”
“I have much to offer,” she rushed out the words. “I can read and write in five languages and know how to cipher. I bring a good dowry to the marriage and I. . . .” She stopped then, watching all the color drain from his face. This was not going well. So she delivered the last bit she was certain would convince him of the rightness of this. “And I love you, Tavis.”
Whatever reaction she expected of him—surprise, understanding, acceptance—she received something completely different. He startled as though slapped and began to shake his head. “Do not say such things, lass.”
“’Tis the truth, Tavis. I have loved you for years, even before you married Saraid. . . .” She gasped and clamped her hands over her mouth, though too late to avoid mentioning the one name about whom he would never speak.
“You do not know what you are saying, Ciara. Marriage is not possible between us for many reasons,” he said without meeting her gaze now. He turned and faced the hearth, his body tense and his voice hollow. “I have told you—I will not marry again.”
“But I will be a good wife to you, Tavis,” she pleaded, unable to stop the words now that she’d begun. “My parents like you and know you and I would not have to leave Lairig Dubh.”
Silence stood between them as she waited for him to see the wisdom in her plan, even if he could not see the love in her heart. Then, he faced her and the expression in his eyes was bleaker than she’d ever seen. She shuddered at the profound sadness and knew her cause was lost.
“You have been raised to make some man a wonderful wife, Ciara, but that man is not me. I have nothing to offer you that you do not already have more or better of—I cannot read or write, I have no fortune or blood ties to match yours. Your parents may know me and like me, but the laird intends a marriage for you that will bind clans together and your fortune is meant to add to your husband’s wealth. I am simply a soldier in service to his laird and not high-enough in standing to ever gain a bride such as you.”
He shook his head once more at her and her tears rained down. The final blow was about to fall and she could see it coming her way.
“And, I cannot love you, lass. My heart was given once and I have nothing to offer you now.”
“But, Tavis,” she began to argue. She had enough love for him that it would be enough. “I have loved. . . .”
“Stop!” he shouted. “Do not say such things.” He paced around the cottage making it feel so much smaller than just moments before. “You were a child when you decided you loved me and you must grow up now, Ciara. I simply paid heed to a small child on a journey, befriending her as she grew up. That is all that is between us. You must put aside such childish notions now for there can be nothing more.”
The pain could not have hurt more if he’d used a real blade instead of his words to strike at her. But that pain made her realize how foolish her words and her actions had been this night. He did not want her. He did not love her.
He would not marry her.
She’d waited for him, waited for his pain over losing Saraid to ease, and waited for him to accept her as an adult, but it was clear he never would. Though foolish, she was not daft, so Ciara used the edge of her cloak to dry her eyes and wipe away the worst of the tears. Humiliated for having so misjudged his feelings and her plan, she stood then and walked to his door. She had to get away from here as quickly as possible. Lifting the latch, she stumbled out into the cooler air, trying to catch her breath, as the tears streamed freely down her face now.
He spoke her name but she would not, could not, look back at him. Sympathy or pity, she cared not for either right now. Her feet took her down one path and up the hill towards Elizabeth’s cottage. She thought he might have followed her, but she never paused and never looked back. When Elizabeth stepped from the shadows to meet her, Ciara felt him stop.
Elizabeth took but one look at her and opened her arms, allowing Ciara to step into them. Though younger by a year, her friend always seemed to be the older one and, for now, Ciara accepted her comfort. When she could breathe again, Ciara stepped back and took Elizabeth’s arm, walking beside her the rest of the way. They snuck back in the way they’d snuck out and soon they were lying in the bed in the loft, though sleep would not come that night.
Only then did Elizabeth dare to ask for details of her talk with Tavis. Though there were many words she wanted to say, none of them mattered any longer. Only one thing did.
“He does not want to marry me.”
Worse, she realized in that moment that the very things her parents had done for her—providing her with a dowry and an exceptional education and making certain her links to two powerful lairds were know—were exactly what now placed her out of reach for Tavis. Had they done that apurpose? Did they make her so appealing and valuable so that only those outside the MacLeries or Robertsons would be eligible for such a bride? Did they wish her gone?
She turned those thoughts over and over in her mind that night and on many others as she tried to recover from this crushing emotional loss.
The next days and months were difficult, but whether by plan or by providence, Tavis seemed to travel on the laird’s business more than before and they did not meet face-to-face for some weeks. By that time, her embarrassment faded and she could almost believe she’d dreamt the whole encounter. Only a fleeting expression in Tavis’ gaze when they spoke the next time convinced it was all real—far too real.
She spent the next months facing the possibility that Tavis had been correct about the nature of her feelings towards him. As eligible men were presented to her, she realized she might have to put aside the dreams of her childhood and face the realities of adulthood.
And when her father announced a possible match one night at supper while Tavis was present and he did not even flinch, she forced herself to accept the facts—she would have to marry a man she could never love.
For in spite of any growing up and regardless of the foolishness of her feelings, she, too, had given her heart away.
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