“Do ye love me?”
Lady Arline felt weak in the knees. Her stomach fluttered with unease when she looked into the dangerously dark blue eyes that belonged to her husband, Laird Garrick Blackthorn of Ayrshire. 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 and stomach to settle, and decided honesty was at all times the best policy.
“I am sure I could learn to love ye, m’laird.” She prayed she didn’t sound as foolish as she felt.
Laird Blackthorn of Ayrshire was a very handsome man. Tall, lean, and well muscled, he stood a head taller than Lady Arline. Short cropped blonde hair framed a more than handsome face. Lady Arline imagined most women would swoon if he chose to grace them with a glance from those dark blue eyes of his. And if the eyes didn’t lead to swooning, then perhaps the muscles that rippled under his snug tunic would do the trick.
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. It had been all she could do not to jump with glee that this husband was not only closer in age to her own, but he was handsome as well. He exuded power, virility. Mayhap, finally, there would be children in her future.
After the death of her last husband, Lady Arline had sworn she’d never be duped into another arranged marriage. But her father, bless him, had been quite insistent that she give marriage another chance. She had resisted her father right up until the moment she saw Garrick Blackthorn for the very first time.
There was something, something she could not quite yet put a name to, something in those blue eyes…they held something. But what? A secret perhaps? She was as yet uncertain and that made her all the more nervous. Whatever it was, she found it difficult to keep her legs and 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 as his wife. Her husband had yet to lay a hand on her, save for the chaste kiss at the alter three days past. 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 Blackthorn 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 brought back the quivering sensation in her legs. She cursed at her own silliness. Her thoughts suddenly turned to Minnie, her auld maid who had died two years ago. Just close yer eyes and do yer duty on yer weddin’ night. It will hurt like bloody hell, but it does not take long.
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 wavy and oft unruly red hair tumbled down her back and stopped just above her knees. She hoped that he had a fondness for redheaded women. Nay, she simply hoped he had a fondness for women. Her last husband hadn’t been thusly inclined. She shivered, cursed inwardly for what must have been the hundredth time that day.
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 had given it.
After several long moments, Laird Blackthorn stopped pacing and turned back to her.
“Ya see, lass, therein lay the problem.”
There was no mistaking his disdain. It was quite evident in the tightening of his jaw and the hard, icy glower he sent her way. She was no longer worried over pleasing her husband this night. Instead, she worried over surviving it. The room suddenly felt cold, mayhap from those cold, dark eyes and the freezing tone in his voice.
“I do no’ want ye to get any notions of fallin’ in love with me. Fer tis a certainty that I will never love ye.”
There was no mistaking his intent. It stung like an arrow to her very core.
Controlled anger, contempt, and derision dripped from his mouth. Arline knew instinctively that this was a man who said what he meant and meant 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 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 to look out the window. “’Tis but a farce.”
She forced herself to remain steady. Fear wrapped itself around her like a cold, wet blanket, sending shivers down her spine.
“Are ye aware of what was in the marriage agreement?” he asked. “Of what all it entails?”
Words were lodged in her throat. She cleared it once, then again, and managed to utter a choked ‘aye’. She had not been given the opportunity to read it with her own eyes. Her father had given her a brief summation of its contents. But, knowing her father as she did, he had probably left out some very important details.
“Tell me, what ye ken.” His voice was low, 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 had suddenly turned quite dry, her tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth. What she would not for a tipple of whiskey at this moment.
“And?” he asked.
That was all she knew. Dread thrummed in her heart. Silently she damned her father to the devil. What on earth had the man done to her now? “That is all that I ken of it, my laird.”
Lord Blackthorn came to stand before her, just a step away.
“After one year, one month and one day, if there be no heir born or conceived, the marriage will be annulled.” He crossed his arms over his broad chest and stood, glaring. “There will be no heir.”
The only way she could have hid her surprise was if she had hidden under a blanket.
There was no mistaking his ire and no way to misinterpret his words. There were no ‘ifs’ in his explanation of the marriage agreement. No wiggle room, no hope. Plain and simple. She’d gone from thinking him quite a handsome fellow to knowing that behind those good looks lay a cold, hard man.
He continued to glare with one eyebrow arched as if he was waiting for her to say something. He shook his head and snorted at her continued dumbfounded silence.
“There will be no heir,” he repeated.
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 ken. 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 was well aware 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.
Her surprise was quickly replace with a sense of numbness. “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 and this 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 Blackthorn did not want her, then so be it. She would play along with this farce in order 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 inescapable warning.
Now she knew the secret that lay hidden behind his dark eyes: 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 she hoped would calm her nerves, she left the closet and climbed into her bed, drawing the covers up to her chin. A hundred blankets would not be able to quell the chill.
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 Blackthorn of Ayrshire win.