January 26, 2010
ISBN-10: 0061344788
ISBN-13: 978-0061344787

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.


Merewen 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 heart.

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 did.

“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.

“Shall I—“

“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. “You—“

“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 more.

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 his stammering.

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 true.”

“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’ me.”

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, Eachann, asked.

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 mending again.

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 her fulfilled.

“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 at d’Aumesbery.”

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, doesna it?”

“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,” Gawain said.

“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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