The Highlands, Autumn 1354
“Do ye love me?”
Lady Arline’s knees shook and her stomach clenched tightly when she stared into the dangerously dark blue eyes that belonged to her husband. She wasn’t at all certain if it was the question that gnawed, or the cold, stony glare his face held when he asked it.
She swallowed hard, willed her legs to settle and decided honesty was at all times the best policy.
“I am sure I could learn to love you, m’laird.” She prayed she didn’t sound like a fool.
Laird Blackburn of Ayrshire, was indeed a very handsome man. Tall, lean, and well muscled, he stood at least four inches taller than Lady Arline. He kept his straight blonde hair cut short. She imagined most women would swoon if he chose to look upon them with those dark blue eyes of his. And if the eyes didn’t do it, then perhaps the muscles that rippled under his taught tunic certainly would.
Truth be told, Lady Arline nearly swooned herself when she met him for the first time three days ago. They had been introduced just moments before exchanging their wedding vows.
She had to admit to feeling a bit more than just a twinge of excitement when she had first set eyes on him. He wasn’t at all what she had expected. Not in appearance or manner. And she had been more than thankful that he had not been old.
Their marriage had been arranged, as all her marriages had been. He was by far the most handsome man she had ever been married to, and the youngest, though he was still ten years her senior.
But there was something…. something she could not quite yet put a name to, something in those blue eyes that held…what? A secret? She was as yet uncertain and doubly nervous. Whatever it was, she found it difficult to keep her knees from knocking together or her fingers from trembling. She clasped her hands tightly in front of her and tried to at least appear as if she were not completely terrified.
Perhaps it was the anticipation of what lay ahead, on this their first night in her new home. Her husband had yet to lay a hand on her, save for the chaste kiss at the alter three days passed. He had barely spoken to her during the journey from Lochbraene to Ayrshire.
She wondered, if by chance, he too, was just as nervous as she.
It was doubtful. A man as handsome as Garrick Blackburn must certainly have a significant amount of experience with women and loving. Nay, it could not be nervousness she saw in the depths of those dark eyes. It was something else.
Lady Arline reckoned that perhaps it was her own widespread nervousness that made her mouth go dry and her legs weak. Undoubtedly he would want to consummate their marriage and perhaps before doing so, he wanted to know what her feelings toward him might be.
The thought of consummation nearly made her legs give out.
It was early evening and they stood in Lady Arline’s appointed chamber. She wore a heavy silk robe over her thick linen nightdress. Her long, wavy auburn hair she left loose and unbound. She was as nervous as she could ever remember feeling.
It was those cursed eyes of his that left her with such a sense of discomfit.
She studied him more closely as he paced in front of the tall window. He did not look pleased with her honest answer. He raised an eyebrow ever so slightly when she gave her fretful answer. Mayhap, she told herself, honesty would not be the best policy with this man.
After several long moments, Laird Blackburn stopped pacing and turned his gaze back toward Lady Arline.
“Ya see, lass, therein lay the problem.”
There was no mistaking the disdain his face held. It was quite evident in the tightening of his jaw and the hard, icy glower he pinned her in place with.
“Ye see,” he said as he continued to pace, “I want ye not to get any notions of fallin’ in love with me. Fer tis a certainty that will never love ye.”
There was no mistaking the tone of his voice. Controlled anger, contempt, and derision dripped from his mouth. There was no mistaking that he meant exactly what he said.
Any hope that she may have had at someday forging a bond with her new husband, one made of mutual admiration and respect, fell as rapidly as a rock from a tall cliff. It plummeted to her toes with a thud. Why am I so cursed when it comes to husbands?
“This marriage,” he told her as he turned away and looked out the window. “’Tis but a farce.”
She forced herself to remain steady as she tried to tamp down the welling fear.
“Are ye aware of what was in the agreement?” He asked her, as he continued to look not at her, but at something unseen outside the window. “Of what all it entails?”
Words were lodged in her throat, so she grunted aye, she knew. She knew what her father had agreed to, or at least she thought she did. Knowing her father as she did however, he had probably left out very important details.
“Tell me, what you know.” His voice was low and steady, commanding.
“I am to be your wife, in exchange for the troth of three wagons of food and ten horses, as well as land.” Her mouth was beyond just dry. Her tongue felt thick and swollen. What she wouldn’t give for a tipple of whiskey at this moment.
“And?” he asked.
She felt her brow crease, swallowed hard and willed herself to answer. “If I’ve no’ gotten with child or produced an heir after one year, one month and a day, then we may annul the marriage.”
The arrangement was not unlike a traditional handfasting. The difference however, was that they’d married in a church. It would take an annulment from the church in order for them to go their separate ways, if they so chose, at the end of the prescribed time period. Lady Arline had not given much thought to that clause in the agreement when her father had explained it. She hadn’t really cared at the time.
Lord Blackburn came to stand before her, just a step away.
“Aye. One year, one month and one day.” He crossed his arms over his broad chest. “And if there be no heir, the marriage will be annulled.”
He continued to glare at her, with one eyebrow arched as if he was waiting for clarity on her part. When Lady Arline remained silent, he shook his head and snorted.
“There will be no heir,” he said coolly.
It was a statement of fact. A point that would not be argued further or open for any discussion at a future time.
“I’ll not bed ye,” he said bluntly, looking at her as if her found the mere thought of sharing a bed with her repulsive.
“I do not love ye Arline. And I never, ever will.” He turned away from her again. “Do ye understand?”
Aye, she thought to herself. I understand far more than ye know. She took a deep breath and muttered her affirmation at his back.
“I think ye need to understand more fully what be at stake here.” He took a deep breath. “Ya see, I am capable of lovin’ a woman. Unlike yer last husband.”
Lady Arline’s stomach fell to her toes again. Apparently, her current husband knew of her last.
“I simply will not, under any circumstance love ye. Me heart, ye see, belongs to another,” he tossed his remark over his shoulder.
Lady Arline felt not so much stunned as she did numb. Her question passed through her lips before she could rein it in. “If yer heart belongs to another, then why did ye agree to marry me?”
He turned around slowly, the derision he felt toward her plainly written in the hard lines of his face.
“Have ye met me father yet?”
Lady Arline shook her head. “Nay, I haven’t.”
“Ye be no’ missin’ much. He’s a whoreson if ever there was one. He does no’ like the woman who does own me heart. I had to marry ye in order to get the fool off me back.” Crossing his arms over his broad chest, the lines of his face hardened further, deeper. “In a years time, this marriage will be annulled. Make no mistake of that.”
Arline lifted her chin showing him that she did not care. ’Twas in fact, the opposite of what she truly felt. She did care.
Not for him precisely, but for all that could have been.
“So we will pretend then, m’laird, to be married for the next year, only to satisfy the marriage agreement?” she asked him through gritted teeth.
For the first time she saw him smile. The curve of his lips did nothing to make her feel better.
“Yer not nearly as daft as I’ve been told,” he said. “I’m glad ya see it then, lass. One year, one month and one day. The marriage will be annulled.”
Arline wondered what her father would think of this and immediately decided that she did not care. In a year’s time she would be of an age where she would no longer be forced to marry any man. Ever.
If Laird Blackburn did not want her, then so be it. She would play along with this farce to gain the freedom she had been denied her entire life. She could travel the world, come and go as she pleased and she’d never be forced to answer to anyone but her own heart.
Although the thought of freedom brought a tingling sensation clear to her toes, her heart felt empty. Void. And she felt severely lacking.
It was enough to break a weaker woman’s heart. But Lady Arline refused to be weak. There wasn’t a man in all this world worthy of her heart, let alone one worthy of breaking it.
He turned to face her again. “I’ll no hear any complainin’ from ye. Ye’ll do as I say, when I say it. Ye’ll stay in yer room unless I give ye permission to leave,” he began listing his rules, ticking them off one by one. “Do no’ ever question me or any decision I make fer ye’ll suffer fer it, that I promise.”
He came to stand before her again. This time, he lowered his face only inches from hers. It took every ounce of courage she had to look him in the eye.
“Lady Arline, ye will heed me warnin’. Ye do as I say, and ye may just get out of this marriage alive.”
He quit her chamber then, without so much as a by your leave. His warning hung the air, long after he left, like damp, heavy fog. Though a fire burned in the fireplace, the air still felt chilled, cold, filled with his pervasive warning.
It finally occurred to her just what lay hidden behind those dark eyes her husband possessed: sheer unadulterated hatred and all of it reserved for her.
With her arms and hands still trembling, she walked to her closet, found the trunk that held her writing materials, her embroidery, and art supplies. On shaking knees, she rummaged through until she found a piece of charcoal she used for sketching.
Quietly, she closed the lid and scooted across the wood floor to the back of the closet. She drew a short line on the wall. One day down. With a heavy sense of dread, she slid the trunk across the floor to hide the mark that had begun her countdown to freedom.
Taking in steady breaths to try to calm her nerves, she left the closet and climbed into her bed, drawing the covers up to her chin.
Earlier, before speaking with her husband, she had been worried over things that now seemed mundane by comparison. Less than an hour ago, she had been nervously pacing her room, hopeful that she would be able to please her husband and build a future with him.
She cursed under her breath; angry with her heart for allowing even a glimmer of hope at the life she so desperately wanted. A husband who would care about her feelings, a husband she could admire and respect. She wanted children. Lots of children. Arline longed for a home filled with love, laugher, bairns…peace.
She would survive the next year. She would not let Laird Blackburn of Ayrshire win.
I look forward to hearing what you think. ;o)