The moment Rhys Macnammon showed her to her suite of rooms, Caitriona Belfry-Macnammon knew one thing without a shadow of a doubt: she hated her new husband.
She had heard rumors of the Laird of Calhoun Castle which she had been entirely disinclined to believe as true. Mainly because she had heard many false rumors about herself. Such as, she was lusty and free with her affection of men when, in fact, she’d had only one swift and careless summer with a stable boy, which had amounted to nothing more than far too many stolen kisses and even more promises that were not kept. It was also rumored that she was a heavy drinker, was hiding a secret child in the woods with witches, and, her personal favorite, was a changeling.
These were but a few of the many rumors that often reached Caitriona’s ears about herself through the lips of her gossip-loving best friend Maeve. None of them were true, of course. If only her life were so interesting, perhaps her current situation would be much improved.
So when she had heard that Laird Macnammon was said to be a cold and heartless man, abrupt in his ways and brutish with his power, she had waved off the whispers and rolled her eyes at the warning she’d be marrying nothing better than a bear caged in a dank castle. He’d killed a man with his bare hands, they’d said, and expected his orders to be obeyed with no resistance. He’d turned away his own family, according to some; he isolated himself; he was running from a dark past.
None of these things seemed quite plausible to Caitriona, seeing as he owned a large castle with vast surrounding lands of thriving tenants and a bustling village nearby. No man so bad as the rumors could have managed such a happy and prosperous community. Not a single farmer on his estate would say a word against him, and Caitriona was wont to believe the word of those under his lairdship than the word of those stirring up a bit of gossip.
But today, their wedding day, his dark countenance planted a seed of doubt in her mind. The man had barely glanced at her during their vows, and touched her only when it was necessary to put on the token of a ring, which he did with such swiftness it twisted her finger and chafed her skin. He’d dropped her newly bejeweled fingers as if they burned him, and ignored the slightly annoyed glare she’d given him. She may not have known the man personally but she wouldn’t be treated like a possession to be picked up and dropped whenever he so chose.
It was an arranged marriage. One of value to both families, of course; more land for the Macnammons and a chance to finally provide an heir to the vast estate, and money for the Belfrys. At the age of twenty-six, Caitriona had been considered far too old for marrying off, and was labeled a spinster past her prime. It was a label that had at first offended her, but eventually she took on with a sardonic sense of pride. She was the old maid, who could ride with the best of the men, hunt with no one to chastise her for endangering herself, and do whatever she wanted with little to no disapproval. Except, of course, from her mother.
Moira Belfry wanted her daughter to be a grand Lady of an estate, which did not include hunting, sardonic replies, nor sparring in trousers. The last of these perhaps put her mother out the most, for showing herself not only taking part in a mannish activity, but also dressing like a boy. Caitriona suspected that Moira’s hopes of her becoming a lady had soared when the marriage had been arranged. And she intended to soundly disappoint her mother. Especially now, as she stood beside an overstuffed armchair and felt her gut overflowing with her newfound animosity for the man who now paced around her rooms inspecting every detail as if he cared that it be perfect.
For whom, she wondered? Not her. His entire lack of touch and conversation through the entire wedding dinner, the abruptness of his wedding toast that merely thanked his guests for coming and said nothing about his bride, the almost rude manner in which he finally jutted his elbow toward her in a motion which meant they could now leave the reception… none of it indicated he cared one whit whether she was happy or displeased with her new situation.
He had only vaguely responded to the many cheers for a good marriage, the jibes from his friends over the wedding night, the well wishes. Though a smile had been on his face, she had seen that it did not reach his eyes. Not when he accepted a congratulatory handshake from his father; not when he had bowed over her mother’s hand in thanks; not when he had taken her arm and led her toward the upstairs suite they now occupied. Upon arriving, his face had settled into indifference.
Caitriona stood in her wedding garments still: a deep blue gown with a wide neckline and delicate floral embroidery in green and yellow to offset the blue. The bodice was fitted, enhancing her waist and flaring into a plentiful skirt with the same green-and-yellow embroidery at the hem. She carried the Macnammon tartan as a shawl hanging from her elbows. Her hair was braided and wrapped around her head, and adorned with flowers to create a crown of color that surrounded her face.
“Quite beautiful,” her mother had said, patting her daughter’s arm that morning and admiring her own handiwork of the embroidery on the dress. “You look splendid, Caitriona. I always knew you’d make a beautiful bride… and thank heavens he’s tall, you did inherit your grandmother’s unfortunate tendency toward stature.” Moira clucked her tongue, gazed ruefully up at her daughter, and patted her arm again. “He’ll be pleased, I’m sure,” were her parting words to her child before the ceremony.
But standing there now, Caitriona’s new husband barely acknowledged any of it. Finished with his inspection of the main room and its closets and bath, he finally stilled in the far corner of the room, face cast in shadows. It was evening now, and a fire had been set in the hearth. Its warmth did nothing to fade the chill enveloping her chest, nor the icy demeanor of the Laird Macnammon. She could see his gaze just barely flick over her as he stood.
“The rooms are sufficient.” It was not a question, but a statement.
Caitriona nodded slowly. The bed was far too large for one person, and covered in a beautiful quilt; across from it, the fire blazed merrily, and a chest sat at its end full of her clothing. A washbasin was in the corner, flowers in vases sat on a table by the window as well as beside the fireplace, on the chest at the end of the bed, and in a dried bouquet on each pillow. There was a robe set on each side of the bed, and beside her in the chair set before the fire lay a pile of a man’s clothes, neatly folded. By all appearances, this suite of rooms had been prepared not just for her, but for both of them.
Swallowing the ball of sudden nerves, she pushed away every thought screaming how right the rumors could be, how utterly annoyed she was at this cold treatment, and how much she was dreading what could be in store for this wedding night, and ventured, “they have been made up beautifully for… us.”
His cheek twitched, and his eyes moved more slowly over her, as if he was only just seeing her for the first time that day. “Aye, they have.” Stepping out from the corner, he was cast more into the light of the fire. He’d already pulled out the ribbon holding his hair back for the wedding ceremony, and it fell wildly to one side in a mess of black curls. Though shadowed, she could recall the piercing blue of his eyes and did not need to see the color now to know they were every bit as intense as they had been earlier. Dark, thick lashes rose and fell as his gaze flicked over her.
The resentment she’d felt before rose right alongside the heat of a blush when his eyes slowly slid over her nearly bare shoulders, to her collarbones, up her neck, and paused at her lips. How he could make her stomach coil so quickly with anger while her heart quickened in another feeling entirely, she did not know. But in that moment she resolved not to give in no matter how pervasive her imagination was. No matter that every deliberate, unhurried step closer heightened the heat swirling in her chest. No matter that she could see the years of active labor over his estate rippling in the width of his shoulders. No matter that his height made her tilt her head upwards and she, a woman of ungainly stature according to her mother, was rarely made to feel so delicate as now.
He stopped just short of touching her, and the back of her neck tingled with expectation. As he had walked to one side of her, she had to turn to see him and he stood fully illuminated by the light of the fire. Now, she could see the sapphire of his eyes had deepened to a stormy gray, and the line of his lips was as tense as every part of her being. Unconsciously, she stood a little straighter, breath catching in the back of her throat. She did not intend to back down, whatever his game was. It was their wedding night and she knew full well what he was entitled to — what was expected of them both — but she would not let him see just how little practical experience she had in the marriage bed.
His gaze was steady on her face as he leaned closer. It was all she could do not to avert her eyes or flinch but her body instinctively took a step back. To her utter dismay, her calf connected with the side of the chair now behind her, and she lost her balance. But before she could even reach out to balance herself, Rhys reacted. One arm shot out and caught her around the waist, and then she was entirely drawn against him. Her hand had fallen on his upper arm, and the sheer muscle she could feel beneath his cotton shirt was nearly as disconcerting as knowing she was entirely reliant on him in that moment to keep her from falling again.
For a moment, he did not right her but stood bent over her, holding her firmly against him, face inches away from her lips, eyes steady on her gaze. Caitriona opened her mouth to ask him to release her, and his eyes slid down to the movement. A long, unnerving moment passed when she thought he would kiss her, and she could not stop the wild thoughts of what that might be like. A spark shot through her imagining the feel of his mouth on hers. How soft it might be. How the slight shadow of a new beard would scrape her chin. How she’d be pulled even closer until their arms and bodies and breaths were entangled in one swift moment of passion. And just as quickly, a flush of irritation followed that she was so pliable in the trap of his arm around her and the feel of his muscled body bending over her that she could forget the entire day’s rudeness and being soundly ignored.
And yet, her heart raced. She could smell the ale on his breath and the scent of the outdoors that clung to his hair, which was just long enough that it brushed her cheek. She could feel the tensing of his arm as he held her, the firm grip of his fingers on her waist. There was not one part of her body that did not feel the added heat of him against her. And she could hear a sudden catch in his own breathing that set hers entirely erratic. The rushing of her own blood in her ears was so loud that she was certain he could sense it when his gaze returned to her own.
And then, his lips brushed past her cheek as he said low in her ear, “rest well, Lady Macnammon.” His other arm reached around her to pick something up from the chair. In a mere second, he had righted them both, released her, and walked to the door. Her body felt bereft of the warmth he’d taken with him. Though the room was not cold, goosebumps skittered over her skin.
She saw then that he had taken his clothing from the chair, and as he opened the door, he paused, and half turned his head. “Should you need anything, your maid Aileen will be in shortly to see to you.”
He left, and with the closing of the door Caitriona felt all of her animosity rise again.
Perhaps she hated him, but it was their wedding night. Her first and, God willing, her only wedding night. To spend it alone in strange rooms with the company of no one but a maid felt like an even further slight. The entire day of animosity spread through her limbs, and she paced erratically across the floor to the window, where — to her surprise — a small courtyard was lit by torches below. On a bench near the gate sat a woman whose face Caitriona could not discern, but she could see that the woman sat with straight and elegant posture, and her hair draped over her shoulder in a thick braid.
She had ncovering on her head as was common amongst married women. As Caitriona squinted in an attempt to see more, the woman’s head turned toward the castle and Caitriona saw another figure emerge and make its way toward where the woman sat. The being was tall, broad-shouldered, and walked with a gait Caitriona had barely familiarized herself with earlier that day. As he passed a torch, she saw his face and hair clearly and a further shot of anger swept through her.
Rhys passed back into shadows but she could see that he greeted the woman with an embrace. They spoke with heads close together for a few moments before standing, the woman’s arm around his waist and his holding her close to his side. They passed a torch on their way back toward the castle, and all Caitriona saw through the cloud of bitterness was a flash of dark hair and the fond way Rhys leaned his cheek atop the head of his companion. And then, they disappeared through a door.
Stumbling away from the window, Caitriona began to rip the flowers from her hair and throw them into the fire. One by one, the beautifully colored petals singed and burned, filling the room with the smell of green smoke as she removed the artful crown piece by piece and watched it all disintegrate in the flames. She imagined she was throwing every vow into the fire instead, bit by bit. Every word of promise and honor she had spoken, going up in smoke.
When she was done, her braid was all that remained and it only took a few pulls of pins to release her hair down around her shoulders in its full glory. Of all her features, Caitriona had always imagined her hair was one of the best. A shining dark red full of wave and curl, it fell just past her waist and she had taken care to always brush it thoroughly to disperse the oils and keep it healthy.
Now, she ran fingers over her scalp to massage out the ache of having had pins against her head all day, and she took deep breaths to tamp down the anger boiling in her stomach. What could she do now? Her new husband clearly wanted nothing to do with her. It was his wedding night, and he spent it with another woman. What would the morning bring? Was she to eat with him, or would they interact much the same as they had at their wedding meal?
Was she to be ignored?
The thought incensed her further. Standing before the fire, hair as wild as her thoughts, Caitriona vowed not to let the flood of disappointment get the best of her. She’d had very few expectations of this marriage; love was not in the equation. They barely knew each other. Before today, the only times she’d seen her husband was at a meal here and there as the families discussed all of the particulars of the arrangement, and never for long.
She should have known he would be just as distant today as he had been in the months before their wedding. It was arranged, yes, but so were many other weddings of her friends and the months before their weddings had been filled with the newfound curiosity of getting to know ones’ prospective spouse. Caitriona had waved off her own husband-to-be’s neglect as business. He had a large estate to run, many tenants to visit, and little time for niceties.
Marriage, she had hoped, would spur at least some sort of friendship. That, she could have lived with. Friendship was key in a marriage. Even if romantic love was not present, she surmised friendship would keep a relationship going.
Rhys Macnammon seemed to have no interest in either. In fact, he’d shown no interest in even cordiality, and the entire day had gone from awkward at the first vow to tense at the wedding table to full of ire by the time they reached her rooms. She was not just being treated as a new bride whose husband knew little to nothing about her; she was being ignored. Save for the tense moment when he had finally noticed her, and the entirely unbalanced minutes spent suspended in his arms, Caitriona Macnammon knew that the Laird of Calhoun Castle meant to snub her completely.
He, with his adulterous actions on the night of their wedding, had taken her on in name only. And she would do everything in her power to spite him for it.
With one last incensed move, she picked up her Macnammon plaid shawl from where it had fallen to the floor, and hurled it into the fire.
She was Lady Caitriona Macnammon of Calhoun Castle. And from now on, she would do absolutely everything in her power to act like anything but.