She was ready to let her heart run wild . . .
Merry Stewart has had enough! Enough of her brothers, whose behavior would make even the most improper lady blush. Enough of their highland home, which would surely have fallen to ruin were it not for her. She dreams of escaping into the arms of her betrothed, Alexander d’Aumesbery—even though they haven’t yet met. But when they do, Merry is devastated. It seems he’s no better than the men in her family.
So beautiful, so brazen . . . From the moment he meets Merry, Alexander is overcome with desire. Desperate to convince her he’s nothing like the members of her roguish clan, he will prove he is every bit the well-mannered gentleman. Yet beneath it all beats a heart as intense and uncontrollable as hers. And finally, when his life is threatened, Merry realizes he’s the husband she’s been waiting for . . . and their passion becomes the one thing that cannot be tamed.
Stewart stabbed the needle into the cloth and tugged
it out the other side with an irritated jerk. She
was in a foul mood and, as usual, the fault for that
lay with her father and two brothers. Unfortunately,
the Stewart men liked their drink. Equally unfortunately,
while they were lambs when sober and only stupid and
clumsy on ale, they were downright mean on whiskey.
So, of course, whiskey was their drink of preference,
which meant Merry often found herself standing between
them and the rest of the clan. Her first lesson on
taking over as chatelaine at Stewart Castle had been
to arm herself with something heavy when they got
like that. Fortunately, her doing so was often enough
to keep them in line. However, their whiskey-sharpened
tongues could be cutting and the very threat of violence
that shimmered in the air on those occasions was frightening
to deal with.
Merry had spent the last six years doing all she
could to keep them from drinking the whiskey the Stewart
clan made and sold. She’d taken to locking it
away in the pantry, keeping the only key to that lock
on her person at all times. But they just rode out
to the inn in the village, or to Colan Gow’s
to partake of his whiskey. She then was left to deal
with whatever chaos they created when they returned
intoxicated. That had been the pattern since her mother’s
death six years ago ... Until last week. Last week
they’d returned from a visit with Colan Gow
so drunk she’d been amazed that they hadn’t
broken their fool necks on the ride home. She was
even more amazed when they still wanted more drink.
Merry had refused them the key to the pantry and
suggested they find their beds. She’d then ordered
the servants to make themselves scarce and retired
herself, hoping that would be the end of it. It hadn’t.
The three men decided to take battle-axes to the pantry
door. The racket had brought her from her bed to find
they’d hacked their way through the thick wooden
door and were inside, breaking open the casks of whiskey.
When she’d tried to stop them, her brother Brodie
had pushed her away and raised his axe threateningly
as he told her not to interfere.
There’d been nothing else for her to do but
to leave them to it. What had followed was nearly
a week of them bingeing on their treasure while Merry
and the servants had done their best to stay out of
harm’s way. The trio had drunk until they passed
out, and then woke to immediately begin drinking again.
On the third day, Brodie had cuffed one of the kitchen
boys who had been foolish enough to return before
she gave the all-clear and then had not moved quickly
enough for her brother’s liking. Fortunately
Merry had been close enough she’d managed to
intervene after only the first blow and while the
lad had suffered a bloody nose, he’d also learned
a valuable lesson. She doubted he’d ever return
to the keep before he was sure it was safe to do so.
On the fourth night Gawain had nearly set the stables
ablaze when he’d dropped a torch in the stack
of hay in his own horse’s stall. However, the
stable master had managed to get Gawain and his mount
out uninjured and even put out the fire before it
spread beyond the one stall.
But it was her father, Eachann, who had committed
the sin that upset her most. On the fifth and final
day of their drinking, in a maudlin moment of whiskey-fueled
grief, he’d taken her mother’s portrait
from its place above the fireplace to whisper weepy
words of longing to it. Then he tripped over his own
feet and destroyed the painting when he fell on top
of one of the fireside chairs. The chair back had
torn through the portrait’s face and upper body
as surely as a sword. Sent into a sudden fury, her
father had then smashed the chair and thrown it into
the great hall fireplace. The picture, ruined in his
opinion, had followed.
Merry had tried to prevent it, but had been struck
to the floor for her efforts. By the time she’d
managed to regain her feet, the painting was on top
of the chair on the fire, burning merrily away. She’d
dropped back to kneel in the rushes and simply wept
at the loss of this one and only portrayal that existed
of her dearly departed mother, Maighread Stewart.
Once Merry’s tears had dried, her grief had
been replaced by fury, not just at her father but
at both her brothers as well. They ruined everything.
There was little left at Stewart that was not mended
after one of them had broken it ... including her
That last incident had moved her father to swear
off drink again, and the binge had finally ended three
days ago. But the men had spent the time since then
doing nothing but moan and whine about their aching
heads and nauseous stomachs. Merry had little sympathy,
and had simply gone about running the castle as usual,
directing the servants and soldiers and overseeing
the men at practice in the bailey while her father
and brothers recuperated. She also had the pantry
door repaired and a new lock placed on it.
For all the good that would do, she thought bitterly.
Merry had no doubt once her father and brothers had
done what they considered was enough penance, they’d
return to the drink like long-lost lovers. They always
“Here they come.”
Merry glanced up from her mending at her maid, Una’s
words, her mouth compressing as she saw the three
men crossing the great hall toward them.
“You’d best go to the kitchens for a
bit, Una,” Merry interrupted as she noted her
brothers were swaggering somewhat. They only did that
when they’d been drinking.
“I’m staying,” Una said firmly.
“Go,” Merry said firmly.
Una hesitated, but then clucked her tongue with exasperation
and stood to head for the kitchens, muttering, “Fine.
But I’m watching from the door, and if that
devil Brodie tries to threaten ye again like he did
with the axe, I’m grabbing the heaviest pan
cook has and coming out here to put him in his place.”
Merry shook her head, an affectionate smile briefly
claiming her lips as she watched the curvaceous and
freckled strawberry blond go. They had grown up together
and were more friends than maid and mistress. That
friendship had been a real source of strength for
Merry these last years, and was the reason she’d
sent Una away. Una was very protective of her and
could sometimes overstep herself in an effort to protect
Merry. All that did was raise her brothers’
ire and make the situation worse.
She turned reluctantly to her father and brothers,
noting that while her father’s expression was
diffident, Brodie and Gawain both wore eager expressions
that warned the trio was up to no good. She glared
at the three of them until they began to fidget before
finally snapping, “What is it?”
Her father glanced to the younger men behind him
and then took a deep breath and stammered, “I—
Ye see— Well—”
Merewen’s mouth tightened. The man couldn’t
even get out whatever lie he and her brothers had
concocted to get into the whiskey. He kept pausing
and licking his lips, his expression getting more
desperate until she wanted to slap him soundly. Merry
was heartily sick of dealing with the trio.
“I— Ye see—” Her father
said nervously, trying again. He then paused once
No doubt his brain was still pickled from their latest
drinking binge. If it was not permanently so now,
Merry thought with disgust, and set down her sewing
to get angrily to her feet. “Let me guess. I
heard the shout that a rider approached. ’Tis
our neighbor Colan, isna it? And, no doubt, ye’re
thinkin’ his arrival a grand excuse to open
another cask o’ whiskey.”
“Aye,” her father breathed, and then
straightened abruptly when her brother Brodie elbowed
him in the back. “I mean, nay. I mean, aye,
Colan has come, but `tis no’ his arrival worthy
of breakin’ the seal on another cask o’
whiskey, `tis the grand news he brings.”
“And what news is this?” Merry asked
dryly, not expecting much in the way of news at all.
Colan’s arrival with a tale of how he’d
caught a hare while hunting a week earlier was enough
to rouse the Stewart men to celebration.
“Yer betrothed is returned from Tunis,”
Gawain blurted before their father could continue
Merry was so startled by this news she dropped to
sit on the bench again. Her eyes widened as her dazed
mind tried to accept what was truly news of some magnitude.
In fact, it was a dream come true. A very old dream.
In the years just before and just after her mother’s
death, Merry had spent a good deal of time imagining
what her future husband would look like and what sort
of man he’d be. In her imagination, he’d
been handsome and fine, and he’d ridden into
Stewart, swept her up on his horse, and carried her
away to a better life. But that had been years ago.
As summer after summer had passed bringing excuse
after excuse for why he couldn’t collect her
that year, those dreams had faded and died, and she’d
begun to think he would never come, that she was destined
to be an old maid, chasing her father and brothers
around until she or they died.
Recalling those excuses now, Merry narrowed her eyes
on the trio before her and said, “’Tisn’t
“Aye, it is,” Brodie and Gawain said
as one and rushed around their father to sit on either
side of her, their expressions eager and full of glee.
“He got word of his father’s death and
returned to take up the reins,” Brodie said
happily. “And now he needs to produce an heir.”
“So he’s ready to settle down and marry
now,” Gawain added.
“Is that not flattering,” Merry muttered.
“Aye,” Brodie said, apparently missing
the sarcasm in her voice “So we’re to
travel to England at once fer ye to marry him. We
celebrate tonight and leave first thing on the morrow.”
Merry snapped out of her surprise to glare at them
again. “Oh. Aye, nay doubt ye’d like that.
Hustle me off to England to marry the blackguard now
he’s deigned to return. Surely that’s
something to celebrate. Ye’ll be free o’
Her brothers exchanged a glance before Brodie quickly
assured her, “Oh, nay, Merry, we’re no'
happy about it. Why, without ye here, who will nag
us out o’ our beds on a morning?”
“Aye, and who will keep us from drinkin’
to our hearts’ content?” Gawain asked.
“And who will mither us to train at battle
and go on the hunt and so on?” their father,
Merry turned hard eyes from one man to another. Despite
their claims of not wanting her gone, their eager
smiles suggested otherwise. Well, it was no more than
what she wanted herself. She would love a life where
she did not have to chase after these three and try
to keep them from killing themselves or someone else.
However, they were out of luck. “Aye, well,
I’m sure ye’ll no’ have to face
those worries any time soon. Me betrothed has taken
his sweet time returning from the Crusades, and nay
doubt he’ll take his sweet time coming to claim
me, too. And until he does, ye’re stuck with
me,” she announced grimly and picked up her
A pregnant silence surrounded her. Merry was sure
they were exchanging panicked glances, but didn’t
trouble herself to look up and see. She knew they
would not stop there when they were so tantalizingly
close to having their deepest wish of being rid of
“Aye, but Merry,” Eachann Stewart said
finally, “’tis no’ that we want
ye to travel to England to be wed, but—”
“’Tis his wish,” Gawain said abruptly.
Merry raised her head slowly to scour each man with
suspicion. “His wish?”
“Aye. Well, as ye say, he’s been away
a long time. Three years,” Brodie pointed out.
“And I gather d’Aumesbery knew not about
his father’s death and that his absence left
his stepmother in charge. Ye ken a female can’t
run a keep like a man, there is much to set to rights
Merry’s mouth flattened out so much she was
sure her lips were no longer even visible. Women couldn’t
run a keep? Her sainted mother, Maighread, had run
Stewart until her death, and then Merry had taken
over at sixteen. She’d had to, she’d promised
on her mother’s deathbed to look out for her
father and brothers and run Stewart. The promise had
been to do so until either her father died and her
eldest brother, Kade—the only sober male in
her family—took over as laird, or she married
and moved away.
Merry had done her best to keep that promise. However,
while she had run Stewart and done her best to keep
her father and brothers away from whiskey, she couldn’t
keep them from the ale. Fortunately, they were more
amiable drunks on ale, but the three men were still
often too drunk or too hung over to manage making
any sensible decision. And even when they weren’t,
they were pretty much useless, just wandering around
whining about how they had a thirst for whiskey and
complaining about her keeping it from them. The three
were weak, silly creatures who were nothing but a
trial to her. But they were her family.
“Aye, d’Aumesbery canna take time away
just now,” Gawain assured her. “But he
wishes to marry ye as soon as possible and sent word
asking us to travel there fer the wedding.”
“It seems a grand idea,” her father put
in. “After all, it means he has to supply the
wedding feast and it saves us a load o’ bother,
“Aye,” Gawain said quickly. “’Twill
save you all the trouble of arrangin’ a feast
and preparin’ fer guests and so on.”
“So, we’ll leave first thing on the morrow.
Aye?” Brodie said hopefully.
It seemed to Merry that the three men were almost
holding their breath, in anticipation of her answer.
She could feel their eagerness for her agreement,
and that alone almost made her say no. But were she
to do so and force her betrothed to come collect her
as was proper, she would only be spiting herself.
Truly, running herd on a bunch of drunken louts was
not fun, and while she would worry about them all
she had no more desire to stay than they apparently
had for her to do so. Marriage, hopefully to a responsible,
nondrinking man who actually kept his promises instead
of forgetting them the moment they were spoken—as
her father and brothers were wont to do—would
be heaven to her mind. Still, Merry didn’t put
them out of their misery at once. They had made her
life a living hell these last six years and, shameful
as it was to admit, she was enjoying their suffering
now. So, instead of answering, she returned her attention
to her mending, fed the needle through the material,
and slowly drew it out.
“Merry?” Brodie prompted impatiently.
“I am thinking,” she snapped, not looking
up from her efforts.
“But Merry, he’s sent fer ye,”
“Aye,” her father muttered, “And
ye’re well past marrying age.”
“Well past.” Brodie agreed. “Diya
no’ think we should—”
“I canna think with the three of ye nattering
at me,” Merry insisted firmly and kept her head
bent to her sewing as she tried to decide how long
to leave them hanging before agreeing. The longer
she kept them waiting, the longer she could keep them
away from the whiskey and, she hoped, the less drunk
they could get this night. On the other hand, she
had to pack and prepare for the journey. The thought
made her sigh. Her life had often seemed an effort
to balance on a needle point. It appeared her last
night in this, her old life, would be no different.
Merry just hoped her new life held more joy for her.
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