All was in readiness.
The bedchamber was spotless, the linens so recently washed the faint scent of sunshine and fresh air clung to them still. The stout oak bedstead had been hand-rubbed with oil until it gleamed. The stone floors were scrubbed and laid with newly cut, summer-sweet marsh rushes.
Beeswax candles, impaled on tall, iron stakes, flickered and burned on either side of the bed. A fire smoldered in the hearth, adding its own warmth and light to mute the chill darkness of stone-damp castle and dreary summer night.
Still, seventeen-year-old Regan Drummond shivered, clasping her arms protectively about her night-rail-clad body. Gooseflesh tightened her fair skin. The thin, lawn fabric was, after all, not meant for warmth but enticement. Regan could only hope, after tonight, her wedding night, she’d be able to put away the ridiculously impractical gown forever.
But not just yet. Tonight, no matter how senseless all the bedtime ceremony seemed, she’d grit her teeth, keep her opinions to herself, and do her duty. Aye, do her duty, and not give dear Roddy cause to question her devotion to him. Already he was in such a state of agitation over their impending coupling, Regan had all but forced him into the arms of his inebriated younger brother and other male wedding guests.
“Give me a time to prepare myself,” she had urged her new husband. “A cup or two of wine won’t harm a braw lad like ye,” she then added, motioning Roddy away. “Indeed, it’ll ease the night to come for the both of us.”
Misgiving in his warm brown eyes, Roddy had reluctantly joined the party of revelers, leaving Regan to her maidservants and the bedtime preparations. If the truth be told, she was in no hurry for the marital consummation. If the truth be told, she was as frightened and unsure of what this night held as he.
With a sense of foreboding, Regan walked to the big, four-poster bed, climbed in beneath the cool, linen sheets, and pulled the down comforter up to her chin. The sound of raucous male voices echoed down the long, stone corridor, voices thick with drunkenness and loud with crude songs. She shivered. It was the wedding party, at last delivering Roddy to his bride.
It was only for a night, Regan reminded herself, and only for a short while at that. Roddy would manage his husbandly duties, then fall asleep beside her. On the morrow, they’d rise, share breakfast, and fall back into the comfortable routine and relationship they had always known before.
Aye, Reagan thought. It was only for a night—well, the worst of it, leastwise. It was also, in the total scheme of their lives, a very small part indeed.
The singing and shouts grew louder. The remarks came again, crude and ribald. Hot blood warmed Regan’s cheeks. The boors. The vulgar, insufferable boors!
Then they were at the door, kicking it open and spilling into the bridal bedchamber like a horde of Viking marauders. Hair disheveled, shirts wine-stained and half hanging from their kilts, the group of twenty or so clansmen, led by Roddy’s younger brother, Walter, slid to an abrupt halt at the sight of her. Roddy, carried aloft by the other revelers, looked up from his perch and blinked in surprise.
It took only a moment, however, for his surprise to transform into a drunken leer. “Och, there ye are, my bonny bride,” he managed to slur. “Ready and waiting for yer man to make ye a woman, are ye?”
At that, Roddy’s companions roared in laughter and resumed their unsteady trek toward the bed. Regan watched them approach, their grinning passenger held overhead like some precious cargo, her desire to dive beneath the covers warring with the impulse to leap from bed and pummel the lot of them. Only her fierce Highland pride held her where she was. That, and the hurt Roddy’s insensitive acquiescence to this ridiculous performance stirred in her.
She had begged him not to allow the traditional activities that always culminated in drunken men milling about, making bawdy comments in the marital bedchamber. And he had given his word that no such escapades would mar their wedding night. Yet here he was, as inebriated and lewd as the rest, joining in with the most unseemly—and traitorous—enthusiasm.
But there was no time to dwell on his hurtful betrayal. The MacLaren men halted at the foot of the big bed. With suddenly the greatest of care, they lowered their laird and deposited him there. Apparently oblivious to Regan’s murderous glare, Roddy immediately rose to all fours and crawled up to meet her.
“A wee kiss for yer husband,” he growled, his liquor-bleary gaze roving over her. “Show me how badly ye want me, lass.”
Regan steadily traded glances with him. “First, send them on their way,” she said, her voice low but taut with fury. “What’s between us, if indeed there’s aught to be salvaged this night, isn’t for the sight of others.”
As if trying to fathom the meaning beneath her words, her husband blinked stupidly. A light of comprehension flared, signaling that a shred or two of sense still remained. He nodded slowly, then, half turning, looked behind him.
“Away with ye,” he snarled. “I’ve better things to do than celebrate with the likes of ye.”
“But ye haven’t even crawled between the covers!” one of Roddy’s compatriots shouted. “And we’ve yet to verify ye’re properly bedded.”
Roddy turned back to Regan. She could see the liquor beginning to regain its foothold, the uncertainty rise. “Send them away,” she whispered. “Please.”
“She said ye must leave,” he muttered thickly, never taking his gaze off her.
“And since when does a wife tell her husband what he can and cannot do?” a voice rose from somewhere beyond the foot of the bed.
“Aye, bridle the filly before she takes the bit, and she’s forever out of control,” another man yelled. “Teach her to obey now, or ye’ll never tame her!”
“And ye’d know that better than most, eh, Fergus!” yet another added, and they all laughed.
At that, something hardened, went dark and shuttered in Roddy’s eyes. Despair rippled through her. She had lost what little influence she may have had over him. Or, leastwise, this night anyway.
The laughs and suggestive comments rose again, until Regan felt smothered in their dreadful, demeaning cacophony. She shut her eyes, attempting to block it all out. And then Roddy leaned close, took her chin in one hand, and slammed his mouth down on hers.
His kiss was rough and awkward. The taste of wine, the odor of smoke and sweat, was on him. Nausea roiled in her gut.
Suddenly, Regan couldn’t breathe. Panic seized her. She struck out frantically.
Roddy tumbled backward, falling off the end of the bed. For a fleeting moment, his companions fell silent, then roared all the louder in laughter. It snapped the last thread of maidenly modesty and decorum Regan possessed.
With a cry of rage, she leaped from bed and grabbed one of the tall, iron candlesticks. Pulling the beeswax taper free, she tossed it aside. Then, swinging the candle stake’s pointed end in a wide arc before her, Regan advanced on the clansmen.
“Out of here, I say,” she screamed. “Get out before I run ye through with this!”
The sight of an enraged, night-rail-clad woman must have finally been enough to sober the assembled men, at least temporarily. They fell silent; their mouths dropped open, and they stared. She knew, though, she must press her advantage while she still could. The candle stake held before her like some battle spear, Regan advanced on them.
“Get out, ye leering, liquor-besotted swine,” she all but shrieked. “Out! Out of my bedchamber!”
She punctuated her demand with a sudden lunge forward with her lethally pointed weapon. With an indignant gasp, the men parted before her. Another sharp thrust, and they began to crowd backward toward the still-open door.
Like she would with a flock of sheep, Regan slowly but surely herded them out the way they had come. When the last man stepped back over the threshold, she finally set aside her weapon. Taking the door, she slammed it shut and bolted it.
There were a few defiant shouts and muttered curses, but from the footsteps now echoing down the corridor, it was evident all the revelry had at last ebbed from Roddy’s clansmen. Soon, silence reigned once more. It took a time for Regan’s anger to cool and her heart to resume a more placid beat. At last, though, the candle stake in hand, she turned back to the bed.
Roddy was sitting on the floor where he had fallen, a crooked smile on his lips. Though most times that boyishly endearing look was enough to erase any lingering anger or exasperation Regan might still harbor against her dearest friend, this night there seemed nothing behind that smile. Nothing, leastwise, that could come close to justifying what had almost happened.
“Are ye planning to impale me on that wee spike, lass?” her now apparently contrite new husband inquired. “It wouldn’t sit well with the clan, ye know, killing the bridegroom on his wedding night.”
“Yet almost ravishing me before half the men of the clan would?”
He gave what looked to be a half-apologetic shrug. “Well, mayhap I let things get a wee bit out of hand . . .”
Regan gave a disdainful snort. “A wee bit?”
Roddy heaved a weary sigh. “Fine, it got far too much out of hand. And I’m sorry, lass. Verra sorry.”
All the fight drained from her in one big rush. “Ye . . . ye promised, R-Roddy.” Despite her best efforts to contain it, her voice quavered. “And ye knew how badly I didn’t want such a degrading spectacle on our wedding night. Yet ye . . . Och, how could ye go against yer word?”
“Lass, lass.” He shoved to his feet, swayed unsteadily, and had to grab for one of the bedposts to keep from toppling over. Once more, a sheepish grin split his handsome face. “Let me make it up to ye. Come here. Come to me, for I fear I’ll surely fall and crack my skull if I try to walk verra far.”
She knew what would happen if she went to him. Yet, despite what had just transpired, despite the lingering pain at his vow breaking, Regan knew she couldn’t avoid the inevitable forever. And at least the bedchamber door was now firmly bolted against any intruders . . .
“I’m not thinking ye deserve aught from me this night,” she muttered, even as she made her way back across the room, “but if ye give me yer solemn vow ye’ll never do that again—”
Just as soon as she came within arms’ length, Roddy grabbed her and pulled her to him. “Wheesht, lass,” he said to silence her. “I promise. It’ll never happen again.”
With that, he lowered his head toward her. At first the kiss was gentle, even tentative, but as Regan moved close and yielded to him, his mouth slanted harder and more insistently. He crushed her lips with an increasingly savage intensity. His hands began to rove over her, touching places no man had ever touched before.
She wrenched her mouth away. “Roddy . . . please. Ye’re hurting me!”
He lifted passion-glazed eyes to her. “Wheesht,” he mumbled, his voice gone hoarse and frighteningly unfamiliar. “Ye’ve had yer apology. It’s time ye give me what I’ve been wanting for years now. It’s time ye begin acting the obedient wife.”
Whirling around, Roddy forced her up against the foot of the bed. Regan fought to keep her balance, but her husband’s greater weight and strength inexorably bore her back until they both fell onto the bed. And then his hands were tugging at her night rail, wrenching the delicate fabric until it tore.
The sound of the ripping cloth sent Roddy past the point of reason. He threw himself atop her, his fingers entwining in her hair to twist the long locks painfully in his hands.
“Roddy,” Regan cried. “Stop! Ye’re going too fast!”
Her husband—the gentle man she thought she had married—was no more. A madness the like of which she had never seen before came over him. Terror filled Regan. Panic rose to nearly strangle her. Instinctively, she fought back, pounding at him, striking his head and face, all the while screaming for him to stop.
And then, he did. He went limp and slumped over her. At first, all Regan could do was struggle to catch her breath. Gradually, though, as her heart eased its pounding and the room ceased its crazed twirling, Regan realized he hadn’t stopped of his own volition. Roddy had either succumbed to the vast amounts of wine he had surely imbibed this eve, or she had inadvertently knocked him out in her terror-stricken thrashing.
She shoved him off her and, for a long moment, lay there beside him. Then, rolling away, Regan slid from bed.
His face relaxed once more, Roddy looked again like the friend she had grown up with all these years. He looked familiar, comforting, kind—nothing like the madman of a few minutes ago. But it didn’t matter anymore. She had seen a side of Roderick MacLaren she didn’t like. Didn’t like at all.
Regan glanced down at her nightrail. Nausea welled. Suddenly she couldn’t bear to be in the same room with the stranger who was now her husband. She shrugged from the ruined garment, hurriedly dressed, then ran from the room.
“The alarm’s been raised, m’lord. Reivers have attacked Shenlarich and taken the cattle.”
Not another village, Iain Campbell thought late that evening, and that only a fortnight since the last attack. Though he loved the Highlands dearly, there were times when he grew mightily weary of all the lawlessness, plundering, and blackmail that were such an integral part of the Highland way of life. He had suffered enough at the hands of power-maddened, narrow-visioned men. All he wanted was to live in peace.
But apparently the fulfillment of that particular wish wasn’t in the offing anytime soon. With a sigh, the laird of Balloch Castle and tanist to his cousin and clan chief, Niall Campbell, glanced up from his spot in the chapel pew. “And have ye word, as well, Charlie, as to which clan’s doing the thieving?” he asked.
“It’s likely the MacLarens, m’lord.” Charles Campbell’s mouth lifted in an apologetic grin. “I’m sorry to be disturbing ye at prayers, and this well into the eve and all, but if we’re to have a chance of catching them . . .”
Iain closed his prayer book, set it aside, and leaned back in the pew. “Dinna fash yerself. Clan honor won’t permit such a humiliation. Best we see to the task forthwith.”
“Shall I call out the lads to ready themselves then?”
Though understanding for his reluctance burned in his captain’s eyes, Iain knew his men would leap at the chance to avenge the thievery. They’d be eager for a late night’s rousing ride, thirsty for retribution against a band of other clansmen likely out for naught more than a bit of excitement and a few cattle to prove the mettle of their manhood. Still, the crofters who had lost their beasts were poor folk and could hardly spare even one less animal. Even more importantly, they were Campbells and looked to him, as their laird, for a reckoning.
“Was any crofter seriously injured or killed?”
Momentarily, Charlie’s weathered brow furrowed in thought. “Nay. Daniel, the smithy, was banged upside his head, and old Angus got a foot stomped on by a passing horse, but no one was much in the mood to defy armed men. Most just stood back and watched.”
Things might not go quite as peaceably for the MacLarens, Iain well knew. Once his men’s blood was stirred to recapture their cattle, the possibility was strong that lives might be lost. MacLaren lives, as well as the lives of his own men.
Iain grimaced. He’d had enough of fighting and death in the past two years to last him a lifetime. He’d had enough of treachery and misguided Highland honor. Yet few seemed to share his sentiments. Few Highlanders, at any rate.
“Well,” he said, rising, “though we didn’t start this absurd custom of reiving, we’ve no other choice but to end yet another instance of it.” He shook his head. “As if Roddy MacLaren and his clan are on the verge of starvation, now that he’s gone and wed that Drummond heiress.”
“Mayhap he intends to present the cattle to his wee bride as a wedding gift.” Charlie chuckled. “The MacLarens are themselves, after all, poor as church mice. And a man, even a poor one, has his pride.”
Iain gave a snort of disgust. “So a stolen bridal gift is better than no gift at all, is it? Nay. I don’t see it that way, and never will, Charlie.”
The older man stepped aside for Iain to slip from the pew and head down the aisle of the ancient, stone chapel. “Nay, m’lord,” he softly called after him. “But then, ye’re not like most men, are ye? And thanks be to God that ye aren’t. Aye, thanks be to God!”