Startled, Derry stepped back and would
have fallen had she not grabbed his wrist. His head was reeling now,
and his main thought was to keep from passing out, so that he hardly
realized that she was not trying to slash at him with the sword but
instead was hauling him out the door and into the drenching rain, now
also filled with the stinging pellets of hail.
Her words didn't make any sense.
"Out! Get out! Don't breathe any more of it!" And she left
him in the rain and pounding hail as she ran back into the hut. He
couldn't understand any of it, for his head felt light; he sagged
against the stone wall of the hut, shielding his face from the hail
and trying to clear his foggy brain.
The woman was back, his saddlebags over
one arm. She slipped the other arm around his waist. "Come on.
Lean on me, my lord," she said, steering him toward the shed. He
staggered into the dry and clung to one of the posts that held up the
"Wha–what is going on? Who are
you, and why in the name of all that's holy did you do that?" He
was regaining his balance, but his indignation was mounting.
"Have you any idea what you were
burning in there?" she demanded.
"Dried flowers. Wood was all
"Aye, well you came near to
killing yourself with those flowers, Sean Derry! Your heart's still
racing, and your eyes look drugged as well. Here, drink some of
this!" She thrust a wineskin at him, which he did not refuse. He
lifted it to his lips and took a long swallow. It was not his Fianna
red but one of the crisp mountain vintages made locally and widely
praised as the best of whites.
"Thank you," he mumbled.
"I'm wet!" Even to his ears, he sounded petulant.
"Aye. Here, surely you've a dry
shirt in here? Best put it on before you catch a chill, Sean."
She handed him his saddlebags, and he dug out a dry shirt before he
stripped off the wet one.
"You have the advantage of
me," he commented as he pulled on the dry garment. "You seem
to know me, but I don't know you."
"Do you not?" she laughed.
"Well, I suppose I can understand that, since the last time you
saw me I was a child, though you were already a man. People do change,
but I'd have known you anywhere, Lord Derry. I'm Dacia."
"Dacia–Dacia McKelvey? My God,
yes. It's been what? Fifteen years?"
"I saw you knighted, but it's
sixteen years nearly since you were here, Sean. I had a fearful crush
on you then; I expect that's why I recognized you right away."
"Did you really? Wish I'd
known." He grinned at her.
"Ha! You weren't interested in a
little one then, not with Helena flipping her skirts at you!"
He almost choked on a second swallow of
the wine. "You know about that?"
"Um, aye. Feeling better.?"
"Yes. Some. Could we go back
inside now? It's damp out here."
"Best wait a bit. Did no one ever
tell you about remsatt, Sean?"
"Remsatt? I don't think–no,
wait. Isn't it supposed to be a love charm?"
"That's the folk tale. Help me up
on the hay rack, Sean. We can at least get out of the gusts up
"All right. He lifted her up
easily, now that he had gotten his balance back. She was slender and
petite, her head barely reaching above his shoulder. Handing her up
the wineskin, he accepted her hands to help him pull up beside her.
"Better, " he commented. "So it's not a love
"No. It starts as a stimulant,
green or dry. But if you breathe in too much of it, it does other
things as well. It'll pound your heart to death, and you'll be too
disoriented to realize what's happening to you. Burning it made it all
"God!" His eyes were wide
with horror. "I burned a big bundle of it. I thought it was just
some trysting flowers got left behind."
"Likely so. But it would have had
you unconscious in two or three minutes, and by then it would have
been too late. It starts as a stimulant to the heart, but then it
starts shutting down your normal involuntary reflexes–like
breathing. You were already reeling."
"My head was spinning," he
agreed, "and my ears were ringing so I never heard you arrive at
all til you opened the door."
"I thought so. The place was
reeking with it. I opened the window and left the door open, so it
ought to clear in a bit."
"Thank God you came along when you
did! You saved my life!"
"Aye, likely I did." She
smiled slyly at him, her eyes glowing in the semi-darkness. "And
does Lord Derry think his life worth some reward?"
"Sounds reasonable to me. What
sort of reward do you have in mind, Lady Dacia?"
She put her head to one side as if
considering the question. "Hmmm. Well, now my lord, I have it on
good authority that a kiss from you is worth a good deal. I think I'd
like to find out for myself if that's so."
"Oh, really? And what authority
might that be, if I may ask?" His tone matched hers, which had
"Well, now. Several ladies of my
acquaintance over the years have admitted to being kissed by the Earl
Derry and liking it very well indeed. Not a few were sorry it didn't
go beyond a few kisses, and a few even hinted that it had."
He pretended offense. "I'm shocked
that you'd listen to such gossip!" he proclaimed, but his eyes
were twinkling. "I never thought ladies discussed such
She laughed merrily. "And just
what do you think ladies do discuss over all that sewing and sitting
in the solar?" I'd wager I know as much about the habits of my
friends' husbands and lovers as they do themselves–more than some,
for I know a few husbands who have been or are lovers as well–of
"I am shocked! And do they know of
"Well, I have no husband, and I'll
not confess other lovers to a man I've just invited to kiss me."
"So you've no husband? I should
"I was betrothed, "she
admitted. "He died before we were to wed."
"I'm sorry, Dacia. Truly."
"Aye, well–it wasn't a match of
my own choosing, so no need to belabor it. I cared for him, and I
suppose I'd have been content to keep his house and bear his children.
I grieved for the waste of his life, but my world didn't end when he
died. The man that killed him paid with his own life, so there's an
end on it. Life goes on. And now here you are. Do I get that
Her tone had been serious as she spoke
of the man she would have wed, but it turned light and flirtatious on
the last question, and he answered her with a lopsided, little-boy
grin that had always charmed women of all ages. "Aye, milady. I
think that's a fair request." And he leaned toward her to carry
through on the promise, only to feel the hay rack sway and start to
fall as it overbalanced. There was nothing to do to save it once it
started, and both he and she tumbled with it and were dumped rather
unceremoniously on the ground. They were both laughing as he got to
his feet and pulled her up as well.
"Maybe that wasn't such a good
idea after all," she managed through her laughter. "Anyway,
I expect the hut's aired out by now. Let's go in and see if we can
start a fire and get warm and dry. And do you have any food? I'm
starved, and I haven't any."
"I do. Come, it's not raining so
now. Lend me a bit of your cloak."
They shared the cloak and made a dash
for the door of the hut. While Derry closed the window as well as the
door, she knelt by the hearth, pulling over a wooden box he hadn't
"Kindling," she commented
when he asked what was in it. "Which we will replace before we
leave." She piled several dry sticks and pine cones under the
lattice he had built, lit the kindling with his steel and tinder, and
soon had a blaze going in the bottom of the still hissing wood.
"That is absolutely disgusting,
Dacia! You save my life and then humiliate me by building a fire in
two minutes when I must have worked ten and got none. I don't know if
I dare kiss such a superior woman or not.." He grinned to show
her he was teasing. "But I will feed you."
He spread out one of his blankets
before the fire and pulled out bread, cheese, and some cold chicken.
Dacia for her part found two earthenware cups that she rinsed out in
his pail of water and filled with wine from the Fianna red he had
brought. They ate and said little until they were both replete.
"That was lovely," she sighed
after she had eaten. "You could persuade me to almost anything
with a meal like that, Sean Derry," The flirtatious tone was
back. "I wasn't really looking forward to a night in a way hut on
an empty belly, I can tell you."
"Yes, and what are you doing out
here, alone, and with no provisions, and coming in here with that
"Ah, well. I went to Narwell
village to Annie Lomax, who's birthed two stillborn babes and wanted
this one to be born alive. And he was, too! But he took his own time
getting here. I planned to make it to St. Genevieve's before dark, but
the rain just got worse and worse, and it slowed me down. When the
hail started, I knew I couldn't go on and decided to chance the way
hut. Father taught me to handle a blade when it turned out I was the
one with skill at birthing and such. It means I'm sometimes out alone
at odd hours. I could tell from the horse and tack you were no
ruffian, so I came in."
"And a good thing, too," he
smiled. "You haven't got that reward yet, have you?"
"No, I have not," she agreed,
smiling as he leaned toward her.
Sean Lord Derry had kissed perhaps more
than his fair share of women during his lifetime. He had always had an
appreciation for a pretty girl, and his own charm and earnestness, and
the little-boy quality of that lopsided grin of his, had convinced
many women that he would remain a gentleman unless they wished it
otherwise. He had kissed women both older and younger than himself,
and he'd had many pleasant experiences, some exciting ones, and a few
that had left him speechless. However, when his lips met Dacia's, it
was like a revelation. His senses reeled; now this was what a kiss was
meant to be!
How long they went on kissing he wasn't
sure, but when he finally sat back, he felt lightheaded and dizzy, as
if he had not drawn breath in several minutes. He opened his eyes and
gazed at her, blinking several times while he tried to breathe deeply
to calm his racing pulse. "Well, now," the lady said softly.
"I do believe your reputation is well deserved, my Lord Derry.
"Yes," he agreed, his eyes
still wide with wonder. "Wherever did you learn to kiss like
Her laugh was like silver bells.
"Well, now, Sean, I'm hardly a green girl, and I was betrothed
two whole years. Though I have to admit," she went on, "that
was the best kiss I've ever had, far and away."
"That makes two of us, then,"
he said, leaning back toward her. She moved away with a slight shake
of her head.
"Nay, one's my limit, Sean. Or
would you have me get a reputation for making mischief in a way hut,
like a shepherd's lass? And me a woman near to five and twenty–and
my father's daughter to add to it?"
"Um--you have a point," he
agreed. "I doubt Lord Michael would look kindly on my taking
liberties with his daughter."
"Nor on his daughter allowing you
to," she nodded. "I may be a grown up woman, but I expect
he'd beat me and skewer you. He's still one of the best swordsmen in
Gwynedd, you know."
"You're doubtless right," he
said, his voice slightly regretful. But he sat back.
"And you mightn't get lucky this
time, Sean Derry, as you did with Helena."
His eyes went wide. "Just what do
you know about Helena and me?"
She snickered wickedly. "I know
all about Helena, Sean, for I saw you go to meet her in the hayloft,
and lucky for you I told Gregory and went to divert Father's attention
until Gregory got the two of you out of the loft."
"Aye, I did. Do you remember what
Derry remembered, all right. He and
Helena had sunk down in the hay, their bodies pressed close, hands
busy, as they kissed, touched, kissed again. He had no idea how long
they'd been there, but he knew he was trembling with need when he was
roughly wrenched away from Helena by strong hands.
"Helena! Get your clothes on,
sister!" Gregory McKelvey had hissed. "And you as well, Lord
Derry. What were the two of you thinking? Father would kill you,
Derry, and likely you as well, little sister. Now get out of here,
Helena, and stay out, unless you" and he shook Derry roughly,
" want a sword through your guts! Now, go!" he had snapped
at Helena, "and don't let Father or Mother see you!"
Gregory had kept a grip on Derry as his
sister had fled, sobbing, then turned to him fiercely. "And you,
Derry–you keep away from her or Father won't have to kill you, I
swear it. I'll do it myself. Do you understand me?" Derry had
understood all too well. Shocked to his senses, he realized that being
caught in the hayloft with the earl's daughter could in fact cost him
his life. The Earl of Drumaere had a temper to be reckoned with, and
he might well demand the life of anyone bold enough to dishonor his
daughter–and be within his rights to do so. Derry had swallowed hard
and nodded dumbly at Gregory, a few months his senior and his good
friend as well.
"Gregory scared hell out of
me," he said now to Gregory's younger sister. "Her too, I
guess. She avoided me the rest of the summer, and then next year, when
I came back, she was away with some relative or other."
"He should have scared her
better," Dacia said frankly. "You might have been the first
man she met in the loft; you weren't the last. But she had to marry
the next one she got caught with."
He blinked in disbelief. "Had
"Aye. Father would have skewered
him otherwise, but she was already breeding."
"Dear God! I can imagine how your
"It was dreadful. He lectured
Bethany and me so my ears rang for a week at least. And poor Jaime
McBeal! Father rode off like a thunderstorm to fetch him back from
home, and when they got back to Caer Dinan, Jaime was pale as milk. I
hate to think what Father must have said to him!"
"I know what you mean. I had a few
of your father's tongue lashings myself. They hurt almost as bad as
"Did he actually whip you? He
"Once was enough! Did anyone ever
tell you the tale of the Inglewood wedding brawl?"
"Oh, that! I've never heard the
full tale, no. But Gregory and Alex go pale at the mention of it. What
"Well, we had gone to Inglewood,
you know, a whole group of us, and the wedding was very nice. There
was tons of food and wine, pipers galore, and more girls than I'd ever
seen all together at one time, I think. Your aunts' daughters, you
"Well, things were going
splendidly until someone said something that Gregory took offense at,
and he hit him in the mouth with his fist. Then we were all fighting
the lads from Inglewood, and it was a regular donnybrook. Your father
and the other men pulled us all apart, and he demanded to know who had
started it. We all knew he'd kill Gregory if he admitted it, so I
think we all said 'I did' at the same time. He just looked us over for
about a minute, like a snake getting ready to strike, and nodded once.
'Into the armory, boys,' he told us, and marched us in like a row of
condemned prisoners. Once he got is in there, he grilled us each one,
and we wouldn't admit to not being the one to throw the first punch.
So he finally said, 'All right, then. One of you only is guilty of
starting this, but the rest of you are guilty of lying to protect him.
So you'll all take the same punishment I meant to give just the
ringleader. Bend over that pommel!' And he made every one of us do the
same, and I don't even know how many times he hit me. I was trying so
hard not to cry, and it wasn't working. There wasn't a dry eye among
us, and then we all had to go back out and apologize to our host and
the bride and groom, in front of everyone, knowing that they knew
exactly what he'd just done to us. All those girls we'd been flirting
with! Talk about mortification!"
She was laughing so hard tears had come
to her eyes, too "I'm sorry, Sean–"
"Oh, laugh all you want. The worst
was to come. We'd been supposed to stay the night, of course, but we
didn't get to. He put us on our horses and rode us home, four hours
straight, with only a stop or two to water the horses, and we weren't
allowed to get down when we did stop. My seat was sore for at least a
fortnight, and the others' as well."
She managed to still her giggles after
a bit. "I'm sorry, Sean, but it is funny to hear you tell it, and
now I understand why Gregory and Alex are so sensitive about it."
"Alex McGowan? He's still around,
then? Didn't his rabid old grandfather die? I thought Kelson told me
he was confirmed as Baron Waverley some years back."
"Aye, he was. But he married
Bethany, you see. They're not so far away they don't come often. Colin
Grant as well; His ladylove is at Caer Dinan, you see, her father
having died several years ago, and Father made her guardian. You'd
remember her brother, Kyle McIvers."
"Oh, yes. Why isn't she with him,
"Killed in Torenth, Sean. He was
with Duke Jared."
"Oh, God. I'd forgot that. A lot
of people died then."
"Aye. You nearly did, I
"Yes. It–was a bad time, Dacia.
I don't like recalling it. Tell me about the others. Who's still at
home, and who's married?"
"Well, Gregory's at home and
married; you know that. You sent him a present."
"Yes. I was sorry not to come
myself, but my lord Morgan was getting married at the same time."
" 'Aye, so I recall. Bethany and
Alex, of course. Lucas married Celia de Hayne–"
"When did that happen?"
"Two years since. Why?"
"I hadn't heard. She was quite
popular at court for a few years, I know."
"Aye. She admits to a kiss or two
from Lord Derry, as well."
"It was only a kiss or two,"
he assured her.
"I know. And Elyse is married to
Toby Wallace's brother Joseph. Toby married Lucy Grant–"
"Indeed? She's a sweet girl. Or
"Aye. The ones left at home are
Rosemary and Hannah, who is actually at St. Genevieve's just now. And
Ethan, who was knighted two years ago, and Keevan, who is Father's
squire. And me, the spinster sister of nearly five and twenty."
"That hardly qualifies you as a
spinster! Lots of women marry after they're twenty-five."
"Not around here, they
"Well, they should. The men don't
marry that young, do they? I'm thirty-three and not yet ready to slip
into my dotage, I hope."
"No, I'd say you're right
healthy." There was a glint of suggestion in her eye.
"I'd say the same for you, my
lady. In fact, if I weren't afraid of being skewered by your father,
I'd kiss you again, Dacia McKelvey."
"And would it not be worth the
risk?" she teased, leaning toward him a little.
He laughed, backing away a bit.
"It might at that, if I knew I could stop with a kiss, but I'm
only a man, after all, and I haven't been with a woman in a good
"You devil!" She pushed him,
laughing, onto his saddlebags and leaned down to kiss his thoroughly.
When she would have drawn back, he caught her hands on his chest and
held her gently but firmly.
"Kiss me like that again, woman,
and I won't answer for the consequences," he said softly.
"Do you have any idea what you're doing to me, you golden haired
"Why do you call me that,
"Your hair is like molten gold in
the firelight, Dacia. And I'm definitely enchanted. Maybe the remsatt
is a love charm?"
She laughed and pulled away.
"Maybe so, but I'm not telling if it is and I set it to catch
you, Lord Derry."
She had loosened her braids to let her
damp hair dry in the fire's heat. Now she began to separate it to
braid it again, only to have Derry sit up and catch her hands.
"Don't," he whispered.
"It's beautiful. Leave it down–for me?"
He started to kiss her again, but she
turned her head.
"Sean–don't. Please." She
drew a long breath. "Or I won't answer for the consequences,
either. We're too much alone here to rely on anyone else saving our
honor, Sean. We must save our own."
He knew she was right, but it took him
a moment to answer. He took several deep breaths, finally sighing,
"Aye, you're right. We'd best go
to sleep, Dacia. I'm tired. I slept–more or less–in a tavern
common room last night, with a room full of disreputable looking
companions, so I kept my hand on my sword and was gone by first
light– and rode in the rain most of the day."
"I'm tired as well, for I was up
all night with Annie. So I think we may very well be able to
He rose and went to the fireplace.
"I'll bank the fire, then," he said. By the time he had done
so, she had lain down and pillowed her head on her cloak, which had
dried well enough. He knelt and spread one of his blankets over her,
kissing her cheek as one might a child.
"Sleep well, sweet Dacia," he
She smiled at him and closed her eyes.
"You too, dear Sean," she murmured sleepily. his blanket as
he had often done before. He felt her snuggle her back against his as
he pillowed his head on his saddlebags. The sound of the rain against
the slate roof lulled them both to sleep.
He lay down and rolled up in his
blanket as he had often done before. He felt her snuggle her back
against his as he pillowed his head on his saddlebags. The sound of
the rain against the slate roof lulled them both to sleep.