Reissue
April 26, 2011
Avon
ISBN-10: 0843961880
ISBN-13: 978-0843961881



First Edition
November 2004
Dorchester
ISBN 0843953241
Buy at Amazon.com
Buy at Amazon.co.uk

It wasn't her first choice, for Seonaid Dunbar had, like her brother, been trained as a Scottish warrior at her father's knee; but fleeing to an abbey was clearly preferable to whacking on Blake Sherwell with her sword -- which she'd happily do before wedding the man. No, she'd not walk weakly to the slaughter, dutifully pledge troth to anyone the English court called "Angel." Fair hair and eyes as blue as the heavens hardly proved a man's worth. There was no such thing as an English angel; only English devils. And there were many ways to elude a devilish suitor, even one that King Henry ordered her to wed.

No, the next Countess of Sherwell was not sitting at home in her castle as Blake thought: embroidering, peacefully waiting for him to arrive. She was fleeing to a new stronghold and readying her defenses. Swords and sleeping drafts, Claymores and kisses. This battle would require all weapons--if he ever caught her. And the Chase was about to begin.


This is a reissue of the book that was first released in 2004 under my old publisher Dorchester.

I've had a lot of requests for Seonaid and Blake's story. Seonaid was a secondary character in The Key. She was the hero's sister and a very strong, unusual Scottish maiden. As a child, she had been betrothed to Blake Sherwell, a secondary character from The Deed. When I sat down to write their story, I first had to figure out how such a woman -- proud and used to a lot of freedom -- would react to her betrothed finally coming to fetch her.years late and under duress. I decided she wouldn't react very well. Heck, I wouldn't.


Chapter One

"What does she look like?"

Rolfe ignored the question as they crested the hill and Dunbar keep came into view. He sighed his relief. The castle symbolized an end to the sorry task he’d been burdened with, an end he would be happy to see. While loyal to the King, he was beginning to think Richard II was going out of his mind. Rolfe Kenwick, Baron of Kenwickshire was no cupid; and yet he had already been forced to arrange two weddings, was seeing to one at the moment, and no doubt would have another to see to on returning to court. If he returned to court, he thought grimly. ‘Twould serve Richard right if he did not. There were far better things he could spend his time on than arranging weddings and chasing after unwilling grooms. And this groom was definitely not eager.

It would have been smarter to simply send a messenger to Blake as he had done with his cousin's groom, Rolfe thought. It certainly would have been easier. At least then he would not have been forced to listen to Blake's constant protestations and suffered his many delays. He also would not have had to answer Blake's constant and repetitive questions as to the fairness and disposition of his soon_to_be_bride, or lied in the matter of both.

Grimacing, Rolfe raised a hand in signal to the two long rows of men_at_arms at their back. The King's banner was immediately raised higher to make it more visible to the men guarding the wall.

"What does she look like?" Blake repeated, his gaze moving anxiously over the castle on the horizon.

Rolfe finally turned to peer at the strong, blonde warrior at his side. Blake Sherwell, the heir to the Earl of Sherwell, one of the wealthiest lords in the kingdom. He was called the 'Angel' by the women at court. The name suited him. The man had been blessed with the appearance of an angel, not the sweet innocence of a cherub, but the hard, lean, pure looks of one of heaven’s warriors. His eyes were as blue as the heavens themselves, his nose acquiline, his face sharp and hard and his fair hair hung to his shoulders in long glistening golden locks. Just over six feet in height, Blake’s shoulders were wide and muscular, his waist narrow, and his legs long and hard from years of hugging a horse. Even Rolfe had to admit the other man’s looks were stunning. Unfortunately, Blake had also been blessed with a tongue as sweet as syrup; honeyed words dripped off his tongue like rain drops off a rose petal, a skill he used to his advantage with the ladies. It was said he could have talked Saint Agnes into his bed had he lived in her time, which was why the men generally referred to him as the 'Devil's own'. Too many of them had wives who had proven themselves susceptible to his charms.

"What does she look like?"

Rolfe put aside his thoughts at the repeated question. He opened his mouth to snap at Blake, then caught the expression on the face of the over-large man riding a little behind the warrior and nearly smiled.

Little George was the giant's name, he used to be Amaury’s first --Amaury being an old and dear friend to Blake who was now married to Rolfe’s cousin Emmalene. Little George now served Blake in the same capacity. An odder pair could not be found, the two were as opposite as fire and water. Where Blake was blonde, Little George was dark, where Blake was handsome, Little George had been cursed with the face of a bull_dog, but what the man lacked in looks, he made up for in strength. The fellow was possessed of incredible height and bulk, he stood somewhere in the neighborhood of six foot eleven and measured a good three and a half feet across at the shoulders. He was a rock; silent, solid, and usually expressionless, which made the way he was now rolling his eyes and shaking his jowled face particularly funny. It seemed he too grew impatient with Blake's constant questioning on the appearance of his soon_to_be_bride.

Regaining some of his patience, Rolfe turned back to the man beside him. "You have asked -- and I have answered -- that question at least thirty times since leaving castle Eberhart, Blake."

"And now I ask again," the fair-haired man said grimly.

An exasperated tsking drew Rolfe's attention to the Bishop who rode at his other side. The King had dragged the elderly prelate out of retirement to perform several weddings he wished to take place. In the case of Emma's marriage, it had been because he had been trying to sneak through a politically beneficial alliance. He had succeeded. In the case of the second marriage, he had needed the Bishop once again because he was trying to sneak a marriage through, though then it had been for the safety of the bride who's mother had been a close friend of Queen Anne, his dear departed wife. That too had succeeded. The marriage between Blake Sherwell and Seonaid Dunbar was the third he’d had to arrange. It had been part of the terms of the second wedding contract, though Rolfe suspected King Richard would be able to use it to his advantage somehow. Not that he cared, Rolfe simply had to escort Blake to Dunbar, witness the wedding, then report back to the King. It had seemed a simple enough chore. It should have been simple. It had not been simple.

Despite having been contracted some twenty years ago, no one seemed to wish the wedding to go ahead. Not the families, the groom, nor even the bride-to-be. It was Seonaid’s protest that most startled him. Rolfe had been both surprised and dismayed when, during his last stay here, the would-be bride -- twenty_four years old and well past the usual age of marriage -- had not shown the least gratitude at having her wedding finally at hand. In fact, just the opposite was true, she had made plain her less than complimentary thoughts on Englishmen in general and the Earl of Sherwell and his son in particular.

As for her family, the brother and father had been no more helpful. Despite having forced the marriage with his demands, Duncan Dunbar had not made things any easier. While he was eager to see his sister married and 'hopefully' happy, Duncan made it obvious he would prefer to see the betrothal broken and Seonaid free to marry elsewhere. However, Angus Dunbar’s stance had been more troublesome. It had taken several days of hounding, dogging and pestering before the older man had agreed to the wedding. The Scottish laird had finally consented, but only if it took place within the month...at Dunbar keep, and with the Earl of Sherwell in attendance. Despite fearing the Earl would be even more difficult to deal with than the Laird of Dunbar, Rolfe had merely sent a message to inform him of the upcoming nuptials and the necessity for him to attend, then had headed off to collect Blake. He could have simply sent a messenger to the son as well, but he’d needed the break from Lady Seonaid, her father, her brother and their people.

Damn. Rolfe didn’t know how Blake would handle marriage to the disagreeable wench. He actually pitied the poor man -- or at least he had on the outset of their journey. However, after the way the fellow had dilly-dallied at Eberhart over leaving and used every excuse he could think of to delay on the journey here, then the way he had pestered Rolfe throughout the entire week of the trip with his repetitive questions on his betrothed's looks, intelligence, and nature, Rolfe was fair sick of the pair of them and could not wait to show them his backside on accomplishing the deed.

"Well?" Blake growled, reminding Rolfe of his question.

Giving a long suffering sigh, he answered, "As I have told you -- at least fifty times since starting our journey -- she is tall."

"How tall?"

"Mayhap a finger shorter than myself."

"And?"

"Lady Seonaid is well-formed with long ebony hair, large blue eyes, a straight patrician nose, high cheekbones, and fair, nearly flawless skin. She is attractive..." He hesitated, debating whether it was time to warn the other man of the less than warm greeting he was about to receive.

"Do I hear a howbeit in there?" Blake asked, drawing Rolfe from his thoughts.

"Aye," he admitted, deciding if he were to warn him at all, the time was now.

"Howbeit what?" the warrior prompted, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"She is a bit rough around the edges."

"Rough around the edges?" Blake echoed with alarm. "What mean you she is rough around the edges?"

"Well..." Rolfe glanced at the Bishop for help.

Bushy white eyebrows doing a little dance above gentle green eyes, Bishop Wykeham considered the question briefly, then leaned forward to peer past Rolfe's bulk at the groom. "Her mother died when she was young, leaving your betrothed to be raised by her father and older brother. I fear she is a bit lacking in some of the softer refinements," he said delicately.

Blake was not fooled. The Bishop was a master of understatement, if he said she was lacking some softer refinements, she was most like a barbarian. He turned on the younger man accusingly. "You did not mention this afore, Kenwick!"

"Well, nay," Rolfe allowed reluctantly. "Nay, I did not. I thought mayhap it would set you to fretting and there was no sense in doing that."

"Damn!" Blake glared at Dunbar castle as they approached. It appeared cold and unfriendly to him. The Scots had not exactly rolled out the welcome, but then he had not expected them to. They wanted the marriage no more than he did.

"'Tis not so bad, son." The Bishop soothed. "Seonaid is a bit rough and gruff, but rather like your friend Amaury is. In fact, I would say she is as near a female version of that fellow as 'tis possible to have."

Amaury de Aneford was Blake's best friend and had been since they’d squired together as children. They got on well and had even been business partners until Amaury's recent marriage and rise in station to Duke had forced him out of the warring business. Bishop Wykeham thought he was offering a positive comparison to the young man. He thought wrong.

"B'Gad," Blake muttered in horror. In his mind’s eye he was lifting his bride's marriage veil and having to kiss a tall, black-haired version of his good friend, the intrepid warrior Amaury. It was enough to near knock him off his horse.

Shaking the image away, Blake tossed a glare in Little George's direction as he burst out laughing -- no doubt under the influence of a not dissimilar vision. When his glare had little effect, he slumped miserably in his saddle. At that point, Blake would dearly have loved to turn around and head straight back to England. However, it was not an option. The blasted betrothal had been negotiated when he was but a boy of ten and Lady Seonaid just four. His father -- the Earl -- had regretted doing so almost before the ink had dried on the scroll. He and the Dunbar -- once the best of friends -- had suffered a falling out. They had not spoken to each other since two weeks after completing the betrothal, some twenty years ago. Both had been more than happy to forget all about the contract, but neither of them had been willing to break it and forfeit the properties and dower they had put up against it, which had left the possibility for the king to order the fulfillment of the contract if he so wished. Unfortunately, he wished.

Blake could not turn and head back to England, his future was set. By noon on the morrow, he would be a married man.

Damn..life was a trial, and what little freedom a man enjoyed was short lived, he mused miserably. Then he forced himself to straighten in the saddle as he realized they were about to pass through the gates into the bailey of Dunbar keep. He would present a strong, confident front to these people. His pride insisted on it.

Blake lifted his head and met the silent stares of the guards watching from the walls, but soon found it difficult to keep his face expressionless when the men began shouting to each other.

"Which one be he, diya think?" shouted one man.

"The poor wee blonde one I wager," answered another, an older soldier. "He be a fair copy of his faither."

There was a brief silence as every eye examined him more thoroughly at this news, then someone commented, "A shame that. I be thinkin’ the dark braw one might have a chance, but the wee one 'll no last a day."

"I say he'll no last half a day!" someone else shouted.

"Whit diya wager?"

Blake's expression hardened as the betting began. Indignity rose in him on a wave. Never in his life had he been called 'wee' before. He was damned big next to the average man, though he supposed he appeared smaller next to Little George. Still, he was of a size with Rolfe and by no means small. He also didn't appreciate the fact they doubted his ability to handle one lone woman, taller than average or not. A glance at Rolfe and the Bishop showed both men looking uncomfortable as they avoided his eyes. Little George, however, was looking a bit worried. It seemed he was letting the men on the wall unsettle him.

Well, Blake had no intention of doing so. Stiffening his back a bit more, he lead his horse up to the steps at the front of the keep. The absence of his bride, who should have been waiting on the stairs to greet him, was an added insult. ‘Twas damned rude, and he would be sure to say so when he met the woman, he decided as the men in the bailey gave up all pretense of working and began to gather around their party to stare. Being the censure of all eyes was discomfiting, but their mocking smiles and open laughter were unbearable.

Blake was relieved at the distraction when one of the large keep doors creaked open. A young boy appeared at the top of the steps, turned to shout something back into the keep, then bolted down the stairs.

"Thank you, son," Blake slid off his mount and smiled as the lad took the reigns of his mount. His smile faded, however, as he noted the mixture of pity and amusement on the boy's face before he turned away. The child retrieved the reigns of Rolfe, the Bishop, and Little George's horses as well, then lead them away.

Shifting uncomfortably, Blake raised an eyebrow in Rolfe's direction. The other man merely shrugged uncertainly, but worry crossed his features before he turned to give instructions to the soldiers escorting them.

Scowling, Blake turned to peer up the steps at the closed double doors of the keep. The upcoming meeting was becoming more intimidating every moment and he took the time to mentally calm himself and gird his courage. Then he realized that he was allowing himself to be unsettled by a meeting with a mere female.

Blake paused and gave his head a shake. What the Devil was he worried about? Women had always responded well to him. He was considered quite attractive by the opposite sex. He wouldn’t be surprised if his soon_to_be_bride melted into a swoon at the very sight of him. Her gratitude at being lucky enough to marry him would know no bounds, and her apologies for not meeting him on his arrival would flow unending.

Being the Angel, he would gallantly forgive her, then they would be married. After which he would have done with the business and head home. There was no law and no line in the agreement stating he had to take her with him. Blake thought he should leave her here, making regular if infrequent visits, until he had a home where he could set her and forget her.

His usually high confidence restored, Blake smiled at an anxious Little George, then jogged jauntily up the front steps to the keep doors. He pushed them open with a flourish, then led a much slower and somewhat less confident Little George, Lord Rolfe, and Bishop into the keep. His steps slowed when he spied the men seated at the trestle tables in the great hall. They were wolfing down food and laughing with loud ribaldry. If he had thought the hundred or so men guarding the wall and going about their business in the bailey were all Laird Dunbar ruled, it seemed he had been sorely mistaken. There were at least as many men enjoying a rest and repast inside, ‘twas a lot of men for such a small keep.

Blake did a brief scan of those present, searching for the woman he was to marry and spend the rest of his life with, but there seemed to be none present. Women that is. Other than a servant or two, the great hall was entirely inhabited by men. It mattered little, he reassured himself, he would meet her soon enough.

Blake moved toward the head table, slowly gaining the attention of man after man as first one spied him and nudged another, who nudged another and gestured toward him.

Ignoring their rude behavior, he moved up the center of the room until he stood before the grizzled old man he suspected was the Laird, Angus Dunbar. The room had fallen to silence, a hundred eyes fixed on and bore into him from every angle and still the man did not look up. Blake was just becoming uncomfortable, when Rolfe moved to his side and cleared his throat.

"Greetings again, Lord Dunbar."

Angus Dunbar was an old man with shoulders stooped under years of wear and worry, his hair was grey and wiry, seeming to stand up in all directions. He took his time about finishing the chicken leg he gnawed on, then tossed the bone over his shoulder to the dogs and raised his head to peer, not at the man who had spoken -- but at Blake himself who immediately had to revise his first opinion. Had he thought the man old? Worn down by worry? Nay. Gray hair he might have, but his eyes spat life and intelligence as he speared Blake where he stood.

A brief flash of surprise shot across his face, then his mouth set in grim lines and he sat back. "Soooo," he drawled. "For guid or ill ye finally shoo yersel’. Ye look like yer faither's whelp."

Blake took the time to translate the man's words through his heavy accent. Once he was sure he understood, he gave an uncertain nod.

"Weell, 'tis too late." His pleasure in making the announcement was obvious. "Clockin' time came an’ went an’ the lass done flew the chicken cavie, so I ken ye'll be thinkin’ linkin’."

"Cavie? Thinkin’ linkin’?" He turned to a frowning Rolfe in bewilderment.

"He said hatching time came and went and the girl flew the chicken coop, so he supposes you'll be tripping along," the other man explained, then turned to the Laird, anger beginning to show itself. "What mean you the girl flew the cavie? Where is she gone?"

Dunbar shrugged a dismissal. "She dinna say."

"You did not ask?"

Angus shook his head. "'Twas nigh on two weeks ago noo, the day after Lady Weeldwood arrived_"

"Lady Wildwood is here?" Rolfe’s surprise was obvious. "She was to wait for us to fetch her back to court."

"Aye, weell, an' surely ye've taken yer time about it, have ye no? We expected ye back more than a week ago."

Rolfe tossed a dirty look at Blake, muttering, "We were unavoidably delayed."

"Weell, while ye were 'unavoidably delayed', Lady Weeldwood was forced to flee fer her life."

"You do not mean Lady Margaret Wildwood?" Blake interrupted, and was surprised when the Scot nodded. He had met Lord Wildwood and his wife several times at court, Lady Margaret had been their often while the Queen had still lived. From what he had seen and heard, the couple had been happily married for some twenty years. Lord Wildwood would never have beaten his wife when alive and certainly could not now he was dead. Blake knew the older man had died in Ireland but a few short months ago. "Lord Wildwood is dead," he spoke his thoughts aloud. "Who would raise their fist to Lady Wildwood?"

Rolfe frowned and seemed to debate what to tell, then sighed. "Know you Greenweld?"

Blake nodded at the mention of the Wildwood's neighbor. He was a greedy, immoral bastard, not well liked by anyone.

"He forced Lady Wildwood into marriage," Rolfe told him baldly. "He separated her from her daughter, Lady Iliana, and used the girl’s safety as a means to keep Lady Wildwood from protesting the marriage and to keep her in line."

Blake was stunned by the news. “Surely he didn’t expect to get away with it?”

"But he did get away with it,” Rolfe said. “Until Lady Wildwood managed to get a letter to the King through a faithful servant. The message recounted her predicament. Richard immediately arranged for Iliana to marry Duncan, Lord Dunbar's son," Rolfe explained with a nod toward the seated laird. "Thereby removing her from Greenweld’s grasp and threat. The King is even now seeing to annulling the marriage Greenweld forced."

"Which is most like what got her beat," Angus commented grimly. "He wid see her dead ere givin’ up Wildwood."

"Aye." Rolfe nodded. "That may be the case, if he caught wind of it." He considered the situation, before glancing at Angus. "She headed here for protection, I presume? Why did she not head for court? The King would have protected her."

Angus shrugged. "I doona yet ken. She fled here with her maid an’ the maid's son, but she fell under a fever along the way. She’s been restin’ since arrivin’ an’ I have no yet spoken to her." "I see," Rolfe murmured, his expression tight with displeasure. "Is she well?"

The Dunbar pursed his lips. "Alive. Barely. He near knocked the life out o' her. 'Tis why she anticipated yer rescuin’ her an’ fled fer here an’ the safety we could offer as kin."

Rolfe and the Bishop exchanged a glance, then the younger man asked, "Have you sent a messenger to the King with news of her presence here?"

"Nay. I thought to wait for ye to arrive, ‘twill be best to give him all the news at one time. He may wish ye to escort her back to court once she's recovered."

Rolfe nodded. "You are a wise man, Angus Dunbar."

Laird Dunbar's lip curled up. "An’ yer a fair diplomat, lad, ‘tis why yer King sends ye out on such fool chores."

"Hmm." Rolfe's displeasure at being saddled with such chores was obvious as he peered at Blake. "We had best see to this one now."

Angus grimaced. "Aye. Weell now... that could be a problem. As I was tellin’ ye, Seonaid took advantage of the uproar Lady Wildwood's arriving caused. The day after the Lady arrived, the men an’ I took to bowsin’. The chit waited until I was fou then come gin nicht she flew the cavie."

"What?" Blake asked with both confusion and frustration.

"He said she left the day after Lady Wildwood arrived_"

"I understood that part," Blake snapped irritably. "What the devil is gin nicht?"

"Night fall. Laird Angus and his men were drinking and Lady Seonaid waited until he was drunk, then at night fall, she flew the_"

"Coop. Aye, I understood that." Turning back, he glared at the man who was eyeing him with open satisfaction. Blake liked to think of himself as something of a master of words, he used them often and well to gain his way in many things. It was the height of irritation for him to find himself unable to understand what was being said and Blake suspected the Dunbar knew as much and was enjoying himself at his expense. "Am I to take it then that you are breaking the contract and are willing to forfeit her dower?" he asked.

Dunbar sat up in his seat like a spring. "When the Devil sprouts flowers fer horns!" he spat, then suddenly went calm and smiled. "To me thinkin’, 'tis ye who forfeit by neglectin’ yer duty to collect yer bride."

"But I am arrived to collect her." He flashed a cold smile.

"The lass has seen twenty-four years," the Dunbar snarled. "Ye should have come for her some ten years back."

Blake opened his mouth to respond, but Rolfe touched his arm to stop him and murmured smoothly, "We have been through all this, Laird Dunbar. Been and back. You agreed to the wedding taking place here and Lord Blake has come as requested to fulfill his part of the deal." He frowned. "I do not understand why you are being difficult. You had agreed to the wedding by the time I left, Duncan agreed also. Only Seonaid was wont to argue the wedding taking place when last I was here, yet now you appear to be against it as well."

Angus shrugged, amusement plucking at his lined face. "Aye, I agreed to it. Howbeit, I dinna say I would be makin’ it easy for the lad. He's tarried a mite long for me likin’, an’ 'tis an insult to every Dunbar."

There were murmurs and nods of agreement all around. Rolfe sighed. It seemed the Laird would see the deed done, but not aid in the doing, which was not good enough in his opinion. "I understand your feelings, my lord, but I fear Lord Blake is right. By aiding your daughter in escaping her marriage, you are breaking the contract, her dower will be considered forfeit and_"

Laird Dunbar silenced him with a wave of disgust. "Oh, save yer threats. I'd see the lass married soon as you would, ‘tis well past time." He glared at Blake. "'Sides, I'd have grandbabies from her, even if they are half English." He paused to take a long draught of ale from his tankard, then slammed it down and announced, "She ran off to St. Simmians."

"St. Simmians?"

"'Tis an abbey two days ride from here," he explained with amusement. "She asked for sanctuary there an’ they granted it. Though, I canna see the lass in there to save me soul."

"Damn," Rolfe snapped, then his gaze narrowed on the Scot. "I thought you knew not where she was?"

"I said she dinna tell me," he corrected calmly. "I had one o' me lads hie after her when I realized she was gone. He followed her trail to Simmian's, but had no luck in gettin’ her out. Men're no’ allowed inside, ye ken."

"Aye, I know," Rolfe muttered irritably.

Angus Dunbar turned his gaze back to Blake, eyes narrowing on the small signs of relief he saw on the man's face and in his demeanor. "Well? Ye ken where she be now, lad, why do ye tarry? Go an’ fetch 'er, she must be bored by now an’ may e'en come out to ye."

Blake glanced at Rolfe. He had been thinking for the past couple of seconds that he may have just slipped the noose they would place on his finger in the form of a ring, but the expression on the other man's face and his would be father_in_law's words told him he had thought wrong. They expected him to fetch her out of the abbey to wed. To his mind, it was rather like asking a man to dig his own grave, but it seemed he had little choice.

Sighing, he turned to lead the Bishop and Lord Rolfe from the room, but at the door to the keep he paused and waved them on before he returned to face the Dunbar. "You say the Abbey is two days ride away?"

"Aye. Two days."

"Over lands friendly to you or not?"

Angus Dunbar’s eyebrows rose in surprise. "Friendly to me. Though no always friendly to the King o' England," he added with amused pleasure. "So I wouldna be wavin’ yer banner o'ermuch."

Blake nodded, he had suspected as much. It would no doubt please the Laird of Dunbar and his daughter no end if he died in the attempt, forfeiting the lands promised by his father should he fail to marry the wench. "I would have your plaid then, Sir," he said with a predatory smile of his own.

Angus Dunbar blinked at him in surprise, then frowned. "Now, why would ye be wantin’ me plaid?"

"If the lands we cross are friendly to you, I would wear your colors to prove we travel under your protection."

There was dead silence in the room and even a bit of confusion, then the men seated at the tables began to murmur amongst themselves, passing something along the line of diners until it reached the man to the left of the bewildered laird. His bewilderment seemed to clear as soon as the man leaned to whisper into his ear. Whatever the fellow had said, Angus Dunbar found it vastly amusing. Throwing his head back, he roared with laughter as did every other man in the room.

Still laughing, the grizzled old man stood and with little more than a tug and a flick of the wrist, drew the plaid off. Left wearing only a long shirt reaching halfway to his knees, he tossed the brightly colored cloth across the table top.

His laughter slowed to a stop as Blake caught the plaid and grimaced at the stench rising off the blanket affair, then turned to leave again.

"Here!"

Blake paused and turned back. "Aye?"

"Would ye leave me standin’ here in naught but me shirt tails?" Laird Dunbar asked, his brows beetling above his eyes.

Blake stared. "What would you have of me?"

"Yer doublet and knickers there."

Blake glanced down at his gold Doublet and braies with dismay. Both were new, he’d had them made by the tailor Emma had hired to sew clothes for she and her husband before their trip to court. This was the first time he’d worn them. He supposed he’d thought to impress his bride_to_be with the fine new outfit. "'Tis a new Doublet," he protested. "'Tis but a few weeks old."

Angus Dunbar shrugged. "'Tis a fair trade for me 'colors'." He and the other men laughed again.

Sighing, Blake reluctantly handed the plaid to Little George who had followed him back to the table, then began working at removing his clothes. As he did, Angus Dunbar stood and sat upon the table top, he swung his legs over the solid wood surface to stand in front of it and approach him. The other men quickly followed, joining him to form a circle about Blake, watching as he undressed.

"He be bigger than he first looked," one of the men commented as Blake shrugged out of his doublet and tunic to stand bare-chested before them.

Glancing at the man, Blake recognized him as the older man on the wall who had said he favored his father in looks. It seemed some of the men who had lined the wall had followed them inside, though he had not noticed.

"Hmm," was all the Dunbar said. Taking the vestments from Blake, he handed them to one of the men to hold and quickly shrugged out of his own shirt. Tossing the stained and soiled top to his would be son_in_law, he took the tunic back from the man who had been holding it and tugged it on.

Blake caught the shirt and nearly groaned aloud at the smell coming off of it. He would guess it had not been washed since being donned. Probably some three years ago, he guessed, then braced his shoulders and tugged the shirt on before turning his attention to removing the braies and hose he still wore.

"A mite tight, but no’ a bad fit."

Blake glanced at Angus Dunbar as the older man finished doing up the doublet over the tunic. His eyes widened as he saw the truth of the words, it seemed his would_be father_in_law was of a size with himself.

"Quit yer gawkin’ and give me the braies, lad. My arse is near freezin’."

Realizing he had been staring at the older man, Blake turned his attention back to removing the rest of his clothes. He gave them up to Laird Dunbar, then took the plaid back from Little George and began wrapping it about his waist.

"What the Devil be ye doin’?"

Blake glanced up to see a mixture of dismay and disgust on Angus Dunbar's face.

"Ye doona wear a plaid like that, ye great gowkie! Ye insult me plaid in the wearin’." Finished tying the braies, he reached out and grabbed one end of the cloth. He tugged it from Blake's hold, then dropped it on the floor and knelt to fold it in pleats. Blake watched closely, amazed at the speed the man displayed in the action and wondering if he would be able to replicate it himself. Doubtful, but if he did, it certainly would not be with the same speed, he acknowledged.

"There!" The Dunbar sat up straight and looked up at him. "Lay on it."

"Lay on it?" Blake asked with confusion.

"Aye. Lay on it."

Blake gaped. "Surely you jest?"

"Lay on the demn thing!" The older man roared impatiently.

Blake muttered under his breath and lowered himself to the ground to lay atop the pleated plaid. As soon as he had, the laird began tugging at the material. A mere second or so later, he stood and gestured for him to rise as well, then finished fitting the plaid about him.

"There." He peered over his handiwork, then shook his head. "I fear it doesna look as good on ye as it does on me," he announced and there were mutters of agreement all around. "Ye look like a Sassenach atryin’ to look like a Scot. Ah well.." Shrugging he glanced down at the clothes he wore, Blake's fine new Doublet and braies. "I daresay I suit your clothes much better. What diya be thinkin’ lads?" Holding his arms out, he turned in a circle to model the outfit. "Think ye I’ll be impressin’ Lady Iliana's mother, the Lady Wildwood?"

There was a rumble of approval, then Angus Dunbar turned to take in Blake's sorrowful expression as he peered at his clothes now shrouding the older man's bulk. "Doona fash yerself over it, sassenach. Ye have enough on yer plate just now. Go fetch yer bride." He grinned, some of his grimness falling away as he added, "If ye can."

Blake stiffened, his face flushing at the chuckles the last three words caused among the Scots. He was unused to being the butt of someone else’s humor and did not care for it, but there was little he could do about it at that moment, so he whirled on his heel and strode toward the door, Little George at his back.

Angus Dunbar pursed his lips and watched his would_be son_in_law stride away. He waited until the men had left the keep, then moved back to his seat and took a long swallow of his ale as he glanced around at his men. His gaze finally settled on Gavin, one of his finest fighters and most trustworthy of men. He called the soldier to his side.

"Aye, me Laird?"

"Take two men and follow them, lad," he instructed. "The young Sherwell's just fool enough to get hisself killed and then his fool English father and the English King would blame us. See he finds his way there without gettin’ lost."

Nodding, Gavin stood and moved along the tables, picking the two men that would accompany him.

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