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Devil of the Highlands


Chapter Fourteen

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"Nay, husband, I have water!" Evelinde shouted between coughs, then gave up her protest to leap to the side as she saw Cullen rushing the flames from the hall.

The stupid man is going to get himself killed when if he'd just waited a moment, I could have put out the fire, she thought impatiently.

It had taken Evelinde a moment to recall the pail of dirty water in the room, a precious moment during which the fire had grown wildly, and she'd heard her husband shout for her. She cursed that moment of stupidity as she watched Cullen try to leap the flames. He might have managed to do so were it not for the doorframe. There simply wasn't enough room for his tall body between the top of the flames and the upper ledge of the door.

Much to her relief, Cullen had the sense to tuck his head down as he jumped, but his shoulders still hit the doorframe, and he crashed back down short of safety.

Evelinde screamed in alarm, her heart lodging itself in her throat as he came down at the edge of the burning rushes, but in the next moment, he'd thrown himself forward and rolled away from the fire.

"Are you all right?" she gasped, hurrying to his side as he regained his feet.

"Aye," Cullen growled, grabbing her by the arm and urging her to the window as she began to cough again. Once she'd drawn in a couple of fresh breaths and stopped coughing, he asked, "What happened?"

Ignoring the question, Evelinde peered over him a bit frantically for any sign of burns or injury, repeating, "Are you all right?"

He had given her such a fright! The likes of which she hadn't experienced since the day her father had died. She'd had that same sickening lurch in her stomach when he'd clutched his arm, turned grey, and tumbled from his seat, but it was a sensation she'd never experienced before or since then… until now, with this man. It told Evelinde that her feelings for her husband were much stronger than she'd imagined. Somehow, despite his frustrating silence, the man had found his way into her heart.

"I'm fine," Cullen assured her, catching at her fluttering hands. "We have to get out of here."

Evelinde's eyes widened with alarm, and she scrambled away from him and across the room when he reached for her. She had no doubt he intended to scoop her up in his arms and carry her out of the room, but there was no need.

"Wife!" he snapped, following, but paused when she picked up the pail of water in the corner. However, when she headed toward the flames to throw the water on them, he was suddenly at her side.

"Give me that," Cullen snapped, taking the heavy pail. When she released it easily and bent to cough as the smoke irritated her throat and lungs again, he ordered, "Wait by the window. The air is better."

Evelinde grimaced at his sharp tone, but when she opened her mouth to protest and ended coughing again, she gave way and did as instructed. She watched worriedly from the window as Cullen braved the heat of the flames quickly and efficiently to douse the fire. The water didn't put it out entirely, but it was enough that he was able then to beat out the rest of the flames with the damp rags she fetched for him.

"What happened?" Cullen asked as he beat out the last of the flames.

"I am not sure," Evelinde admitted, using another damp rag to try to wave the slowly dissipating smoke out through the window. "I think the torch fell out of its holder and onto the rushes."

His expression told her he doubted it had done so on its own, but she continued, "I had just remembered the pail of water when I heard you shout. I tried to yell at you not to risk yourself until I had doused the flames, but…" She shrugged, not bothering to point out that he hadn't listened.

Cullen merely grunted, and bent to peer at something in the embers. Giving up on the smoke, Evelinde moved up behind him to see what it was, her eyes moving over the torch lying in the center of the pile. When his gaze then lifted to the holder beside the door, she followed his glance, noting that the holder was tipped to the side as if to suggest the brace had slid, and the torch had fallen out. The problem was that even she could see that had the torch fallen out, it would have fallen closer to its holder, not the good foot and a half it had somehow traveled to land in the center of the rushes.

"It was not an accident," Cullen growled, straightening.

"Nay," Evelinde agreed quietly, but wasn't surprised. She hadn't heard it fall. Surely had it tumbled from its holder in some natural fashion, she would have heard it hit the floor? There should have been a thump, or at least a rustle of the rushes. However, there had been no sound to warn her. The smoke had been her first and only warning.

"But it would have looked like one had the fire done its work and destroyed the torch ere we got it put out," he continued grimly. "The tilted holder would have suggested it had fallen out on its own."

"Aye." Evelinde sighed, then watched silently as he straightened and moved around the embers to the iron holder fixed into the stone wall by one large bolt. There had been two when Mildrede had put the torch in earlier. Evelinde swept the floor with her eyes but didn't see the second bolt anywhere. She then glanced back to Cullen as he turned the holder upright and saw his mouth tighten when it moved silently. When he then gave the bolt still in the wall a tug, it came out easily and equally silently, which explained why she hadn't heard a thing.

Tossing the torch holder aside with disgust, Cullen turned back to sweep her into his arms and step over the still-smoking embers. They met Fergus as Cullen carried her into the hall. The older man was out of breath, a pail of water in each hand and several women behind him with more.

"The fire is out, but the embers are still hot. Douse them well," Cullen growled, then carried Evelinde to their room.

She could have walked, but already knew from past experience that there was no sense arguing with Cullen. The man would carry her when he wished, and, apparently, he wished to now. Evelinde remained still in his arms as he strode to the door of their chamber, reached out to open it when he growled the order to do so, then waited patiently as he carried her inside, kicking the door closed behind them. However, the moment he stopped beside the bed, she kicked her legs and asked him to set her down.

Cullen hesitated long enough that she thought he would refuse, but then he reluctantly set her on her feet. The moment he did, Evelinde dropped to her knees before him and began examining his legs for burns.

"What are ye doing?" Cullen asked, trying to step away.

Evelinde hooked one arm around his leg to hold him in place and continued her inspection, even going so far as to lift his plaid to check his upper legs and thighs.

"Wife!" He tried to brush her hands away, and she glanced up, surprised to see that the man was actually blushing at her efforts.

"I wish to be sure you suffered no burns when you landed in the flames," she explained, and pushed his plaid up again, surprised to find a growing erection staring back at her. While her interest was purely out of concern for his well-being, it appeared Cullen was finding it all rather… interesting.

Shaking her head, Evelinde continued to peer over his skin, crawling around him to check the back as well. She had just lifted the back of the plaid and noted that he really had a very nice bottom when Cullen appeared to reach his limit. Turning swiftly, he caught her under the arm and dragged her back to her feet, his expression exasperated.

"I am no burned," he growled. "And I am more concerned with you at the moment. Ye breathed in a lot of smoke. Does yer chest hurt?"

"Nay," she assured him solemnly, then couldn't resist grinning and adding, "Would you care to check me for burns?"

Cullen's mouth dropped open at the bold invitation, then he shook his head on a reluctant laugh as he pulled her into his arms for a hug. The chuckle ended on a sigh as he rested his chin on her head, and said, "Yer going to be the death of me, wife."

Evelinde's own smile faded at the soft words as fear claimed her that she might indeed be the death of him did such "accidents" continue. While the fire suggested she was the target, Cullen could have been killed today trying to save her from it. Had she not had the bucket of water inside the room, they would both have been trapped in the smoke-filled chamber. Evelinde was sure he couldn't have leapt back through the burning rushes carrying her, and was equally sure he would have tried rather than leave her there to stay and smother to death in the thickening smoke. She had no doubt Cullen would have saved her, but he could very well have burned himself badly doing so, and burns often ended in infection and death.

"Have I told ye yet today how much ye please me fer a wife?"

Evelinde stilled at those soft words and leaned back to peer at him. Something about the softness in his eyes made the breath catch in her throat. She thought it might be more than the simple caring of a husband for his wife.

"What the devil happened here?"

"Where is my lady?"

Evelinde and Cullen both glanced toward the closed bedchamber door at the startled cries from the hall. It seemed Mildrede and Tavis had returned from their first trip to remove rushes. Not that they would have to make many more trips, she supposed wryly. The rushes were now a pile of charred and soggy ashes on the solar floor. A frown claimed her lips as she wondered if the floor would now need repairing.

A sigh from Cullen drew her attention back to him as he eased her away and turned toward the door.

Evelinde started to follow, but, he paused at the door and glanced back to order, "Stay put. I shall send a bath up to ye."

Evelinde scowled at the door when he pulled it closed. She was reaching to open it when she heard Cullen begin shouting in the hall. He was giving Fergus and Tavis the sharp side of his tongue for not staying with her but leaving her to work in the solar alone. She considered going out to explain that she'd told them there was no need, but then thought better of it. Cullen wouldn't see that as a good excuse for their not following his orders. He blamed the men, and nothing she said was going to change that. In fact, Evelinde suspected her intervention would just annoy him further and make it worse for the men.

Sighing, she turned away from the door and moved back to the chair to await her bath.

"No one went above stairs," Fergus repeated for the fourth time. "The torch must have fallen out by itself."

"It didna fall out by itself," Cullen growled with frustration.

"But no one went above stairs," the older man insisted. "I was watching the whole time."

"Ye didna look away even fer a minute?" Cullen asked grimly.

"Nay," Fergus assured him.

"Well…" Both men paused and glanced to Tavis as he spoke the word. The man cast an apologetic glance to Fergus, then pointed out, "Ye did come help with the door."

Fergus's shoulders sagged, and he ran one hand wearily through his hair. "They both had their hands full with the rushes, so I hurried over to the door to open it for them," he admitted on a sigh, then rallied and added, "but that only took a moment, surely not enough time for someone to get upstairs without me noticing."

"Apparently it was," Cullen growled, furious that the man had failed him like this. Fergus was usually the most dependable of men. It was why he had been first for so long, first to Cullen's father, then for himself.

"Well, they could not have got up and down in that time," Fergus pointed out, sounding frustrated. "It had to have been an accident."

"They could have waited up here and slipped away while I was in the room, and you were below fetching water," Cullen pointed out.

The point did not please the man. He shook his head stubbornly, and insisted, "It had to have been an accident. I cannot believe anyone would-"

"It wasna an accident," Cullen interrupted furiously, then added, "In future, whoever is guarding my wife is to remain in the room with her, or follow wherever she goes. Understood?"

"Aye," Fergus and Tavis said as one.

Cullen let his breath out on a pent-up sigh. He wasn't satisfied. Evelinde had nearly died, and it was leaving him with an urge either to make love to her and hold her close for a good several hours or, alternately, to smash something. Unfortunately, Mildrede had rushed off to the chamber to see that her mistress was all right as soon as he'd begun yelling at the men, and the servants even now were trudging up the stairs with the tub and water he'd ordered before laying into Tavis and Fergus for allowing this to happen. Making love to his wife was out, and as much as he'd like to, striking one or both of the men before him was not an acceptable choice at the moment either. Angry as he was, he might very well kill one or both of them.

He needed an outlet, however, and turned abruptly away from the men to head for the stairs. A rant with Mac, then a hard ride on his mount should help him use up some of the heated blood pouring through his veins, Cullen thought, but paused and scowled with frustration as he realized he couldn't get down the stairs until the women got up them with the tub.

His angry glare was on the women as he waited impatiently, but then it turned to a concerned frown as he noted the struggle the women were having with the tub. It was taking four of them to cart the item, which made negotiating the stairs with it a tricky business, and Cullen suddenly recalled his wife's claiming that a couple of men to work in the keep would ease the burden somewhat. It would only have taken two men to handle the tub, which would have speeded up the process and made it less difficult.

As he was thinking about the matter of men in the castle, Cullen was recalling the last time they'd had boar for sup. The beast had been spice and cooked on the spit, then stuffed and presented on one large platter. It had taken six women to bring the beast out, and the animal had landed in the rushes when one of the women stumbled and the tray tipped and the carcass slid off. They'd quickly stopped and replaced the beast on the tray and continued forward, and the meal had still been good, but they'd had to pick off the pieces of rushes and other unsavory bits that had stuck to the animal after the fall.

Men to help with the heavier kitchen tasks might have saved such an accident. It also would have freed the women to serve the other dishes more quickly. And really, having three or four men in the castle to help with such tasks would hardly leave him lacking men to train, and the men could take turns at it; a day in the castle, three or four at practice perhaps. His wife's suggestion really was a good one he admitted reluctantly. He would have to arrange it.

"I wish to take a bath and cannot do so with the two of you standing there watching," Evelinde repeated with exasperation, finding it impossible to believe her husband had really ordered the men to stay in the same room with her. What had he been thinking? Obviously, he hadn't been thinking at all when he'd given that order. At least he hadn't been thinking about the fact that he'd ordered a bath for her as well. Good Lord! Were the two men going to crowd into the privy with her when she needed to use it?

Evelinde tried to push that thought out of her mind the moment it entered. Just thinking about it was likely to make her need to relieve herself, then she'd be in a real pickle.

"The laird ordered that we are to stay in the same room with ye," Fergus repeated stubbornly. He was looking a bit angry and annoyed at the whole business. Obviously, he was displeased with getting into trouble and unwilling to risk disobeying Cullen's order. Tavis, on the other hand, was grinning like an idiot at the idea of her having to bathe in front of them.

"Now, this is just folly," Mildrede said with exasperation, weighing into the fray. "You cannot stand there while she bathes."

"And we cannot leave," Fergus said firmly. "She will just have to wait until Cullen returns to bathe."

"Oh, that would be a waste," Tavis protested. "The water will get cold, and after the ladies worked so hard at heating and bringing it up here."

Evelinde scowled at her husband's cousin, knowing he didn't care a fig for all the work the women had put into preparing the bath. Otherwise, he would have helped carry up the bloody tub. Shifting impatiently, she headed for the door, asking, "Where is my husband?"

When she got no answer, Evelinde glanced back to see that while they were following her, their expressions suggested they had no idea where the man had gone. Shaking her head with exasperation, she pulled the door open and sailed out of the room, aware that the men were still following. Evelinde paused at the top of the stairs, her gaze sliding over the great hall below with irritation. She'd hoped to find him below dealing with some business or other, but he was absent from the nearly empty room and could be anywhere. He might have been in the bailey, the stables, working in the practice field or he may even have left the castle. How annoying!

Evelinde stood at the top of the stairs, undecided as to what to do. Then she nodded firmly to herself and swung back around. Fergus and Tavis broke apart to make way for her and followed as she moved quickly back along the hall, but when she reached her room, Evelinde opened the door just enough to slip inside, then slammed it quickly closed as the men realized what she was doing and rushed forward. She barely managed to slam the bar into place before they thumped against the other side of the wooden panel.

"Me lady!" Fergus snapped from the hall. "Open this door! We are not to let you out of our sight."

"I shall open the door as soon as I have finished my bath," Evelinde announced serenely as she started across the room toward the tub, where Mildrede was chuckling softly as she checked the temperature of the bathwater.

"Oh, now, Evie," Tavis wheedled, making Evelinde's eyebrows rise at the use of the nickname only Mac had ever used. "Ye'll be getting us in trouble. Open the door, lass, and let us in. We promise not to look."

Evelinde snorted at the claim as she quickly began to strip off her gown. She would have believed that Fergus might not look, but Tavis? Not likely. The man was as ruttish as a bull and with every single female around as far as she could tell. There didn't appear to be a woman the man didn't like. She'd seen him with the young, the not so young, blondes, redheads, brunettes, and women with ebony hair. She had seen him with thin women, large women, and every size in between. She suspected he was trying to fill the hole left by his mother's apparent withdrawal when he was young, but couldn't be sure. And it mattered little anyway. He would never be able to fill that hole by hopping from woman to woman.

"In you get, love," Mildrede murmured as she finished helping Evelinde to remove her gown and chemise.

Thanking Mildrede for her help, Evelinde stepped into the tub, releasing a little sigh as the warm water closed around her soot-stained skin. The temperature was perfect, and it would have been a lovely bath were it not for the continued bellowing and shouts from the men in the hall.

Really, their increasing volume and panic over her refusal to let them in rather ruined the whole experience for her. Grimacing, Evelinde moved quickly through her bath, washing away the soot covering her as swiftly as she could. Apparently she wasn't the only one to find their bleating annoying. She had never known Mildrede to wash her hair so quickly, and it seemed like just moments before Evelinde was hurrying out of the tub, running a dry linen over herself, then donning clean clothes.

" 'Tis well past time we sort out all these accidents and who is causing them," Mildrede said grimly as she helped Evelinde with her laces. "I think I shall ask some questions myself. Perhaps I can learn something of use from the other maids here."

"Nay," Evelinde said sharply. "I shall not have you endangering yourself that way."

"But-"

"Nay," Evelinde repeated firmly. "Leave it to me. I shall figure it out and sort the matter myself."

Mildrede's mouth tightened, but she didn't argue further, and Evelinde moved toward the door. Her hair was still damp and needed brushing, but she was bathed and dressed, and that would have to do. She could not stand the noise Fergus and Tavis were making for another moment. If they were so determined not to let her out of their sight, they could stand about and watch the less-than-titillating show of her brushing her hair by the fire to dry it. No doubt it would be like watching wheat grow for them, Evelinde thought, and hoped it bored them to tears.

It was midday when Evelinde finished drying her hair and led the way below to the great hall. Mildrede had a small smile of amusement on her face as she descended the stairs next to her, but she was the only one of their group enjoying herself. Fergus and Tavis had paced about her room, sighing repeatedly and loudly as they'd waited for her to finish with her hair. Evelinde herself was finding their presence less than enjoyable. If her husband had been below when she stepped off the last step, she would have had a word or two for the man.

However, he was nowhere in sight. Evelinde released a heavy sigh and started toward the head of the high table for the nooning meal. She had crossed perhaps half the distance when the great hall doors opened, drawing her gaze. Evelinde stopped abruptly on seeing Tralin Comyn entering, and nearly tumbled forward to the rushes when one of the men didn't stop quickly enough and crashed into her back.

"For heaven's sake," she said with exasperation when someone quickly caught her to keep her on her feet, and she turned to see that Tavis was the culprit. "There is no need to walk on my heels. I am not going to run off anywhere."

"Sorry," Tavis muttered, appearing amused despite the word.

Clucking under her tongue with irritation, Evelinde turned away and crossed toward Tralin rather than her seat.

"Good day, my lord," she greeted. "My husband is not here at the moment, but I am sure he shall return soon."

"Aye." Tralin smiled. "Mac said Cullen had gone out for a ride when he took my mount. He thought he should return soon, too."

Evelinde felt her mouth tighten with irritation. It did appear everyone else seemed to know things she didn't, and truly it was annoying. Would it really have been such an effort for Cullen to have sent someone to tell her he was going for a ride?

Shaking the thought away, she said, "Well, you are welcome to join us for the nooning meal while you wait."

"I did not realize it was so late in the day when I left," Tralin said apologetically. "But, aye, if 'twould be no trouble, I would be pleased to join ye in a meal."

" 'Tis no trouble at all," Evelinde assured him, slipping her arm through his to guide him to the head table. In truth, she was glad to have the opportunity to speak to the man.

"Mac also told me there was some trouble this morning," Tralin said quietly, as they settled at the table. His gaze slid over her. "Ye appear to have come through well enough."

"Oh, aye, I am fine," she assured him, pausing to scowl at Tavis as he settled himself so close next to her that he sat on the skirt of her gown. Tavis merely grinned and shifted a little to tug the skirt out from under him as Fergus took a seat on his other side.

" 'Tis not the first bit of trouble ye've had since arriving," Tralin murmured, reclaiming her attention. "Cullen told me about the paddock, the arrow in the tree, and your fall down the stairs when the two of ye last visited at Comyn."

Evelinde hesitated, then said carefully, "I appear to be troubled with accidents of late."

"Cullen didn't appear to believe they were accidents," Tralin said solemnly. " 'Tis why I rode over today. I thought to come to the two of ye and be sure all is well."

Evelinde's mouth tightened. He'd come to see if all was well, only to discover there had been another accident. "We are fine," she finally said. "Fortunately, whoever is causing these accidents appears to be rather ham-handed since none of the attempts has succeeded."

It had been an offhand comment, one to ease her own discomfort, but the effect it had on the men on either side of her was interesting. Tralin looked startled and concerned, while Tavis gave a burst of laughter that drew several eyes their way. Fergus, on the other hand, was scowling.

" 'Tis that attitude that will get ye killed, me lady," Fergus growled with irritation. "Ye've been lucky so far, but do ye no let us guard ye as we've been ordered to do, ye may find yerself no so lucky with the next attempt."

Evelinde rolled her eyes at the reprimand, then, catching the curious arching of an eyebrow Tralin was giving her, she explained, "Fergus is just upset because I wouldn't let him and Tavis watch me bathe."

Tralin's jaw dropped at her words, then he grinned at the older soldier. "Why, Fergus, ye ruttish devil. I'd expect that of Tavis, but no of you."

"Cullen ordered us to stay with her at all times," the man snapped, his face reddening. "But she tricked us into leaving the chamber and locked us out."

"I am sure my husband did not mean for you to oversee my bath," Evelinde said calmly.

"He-" Fergus began, but fell silent as several women rushed from the kitchens and paused before them with platters of food.

"Thank you," Evelinde murmured as she peered over the selection and chose some meat and cheese. They all fell silent as they began to eat, but when Evelinde felt Tralin's shoulder shaking as it brushed against her own, she glanced over to see him silently laughing, his face wreathed in amusement as he glanced at a still-disgruntled Fergus.

Tavis, she saw, was also looking rather amused. Evelinde smiled faintly herself, then her gaze slid down to one of the lower tables, where Mildrede had seated herself, and her smile faded away to concern as she noted the concentration on her maid's face as Mildrede nodded and listened to the old woman seated beside her. Evelinde was suddenly quite sure that-despite her ordering her not to-the maid was trying to find out what she could in an effort to put an end to these accidents. Evelinde understood her desire to do so, but really had no wish for the woman to endanger herself by drawing the attention of the culprit behind them. However, she knew the only way to stop her was to resolve the matter herself.

Biting her lip, she glanced to Tralin again, noting absently that he was really quite handsome. His easy smile and sparkling eyes were most attractive. However, while her own husband rarely smiled, his features were more noble and… well, she found Cullen more attractive for some reason. Perhaps because she had come to care for him, Evelinde acknowledged.

Despite her frustration over the lack of communication between them, his actions really did seem to speak louder than words at times. Ordering the men to stick with her every minute-while annoying-was also really quite sweet and showed a caring and concern she thought she'd seen on his face when he'd told her that she pleased him as wife. His expression had seemed to be… well, loving. It gave her heart hope, for Evelinde feared she might very well be falling in love with her husband. Although, if she were to be perfectly honest with herself, she suspected she was not falling so much as already there. And really, she had no idea how that had happened. While she enjoyed his kisses and caresses, found an excitement beyond anything she'd heretofore experienced when he bedded her, and was often and repeatedly touched by his consideration and kind acts…Evelinde also found Cullen somewhat frustrating because she often learned about these kindnesses through someone else or after the fact when it was rather too late to appreciate them.

"That was a heavy sigh."

Evelinde glanced to Tralin with a start, then forced a smile. "I was just thinking."

"They must be heavy thoughts to have produced such a sigh," he murmured.

She considered him briefly, then glanced around the room, becoming aware that most people had finished eating and were leaving the great hall. There were few still seated. Mildrede had left the table and was now mounting the stairs to the second level, no doubt to see how much damage the fire had done in the solar, she supposed. Tavis had left his seat and was presently flirting with one of the maids clearing away the lower tables. Even Fergus had left the table and now stood talking to Gillie by the keep doors, no doubt giving him instructions about something. Despite the fact that he was talking to Gillie, the man's eyes were on her, she noted, and her mouth flattened with displeasure. She suspected she would have eyes on her every moment of the day until she resolved the matter of who was behind these accidents and the deaths in the past.

Turning back to Tralin, she announced, "Cullen and I stopped at the cliff where Jenny is buried on our return from Comyn the other day."

Tralin raised an eyebrow, curiosity clear on his face. "Oh?"

"Aye. He said you fancied Biddy's sister, Jenny, . when she visited here."

A slow grin broke out on his face. "And ye wish to ken if he fancied her, too."

"Nay," Evelinde assured him quickly. "I just wondered if 'twere true."

He considered her with raised eyebrows for a moment and nodded. "Aye, I fancied her."

Evelinde was trying to figure out how to ask if he'd been her lover when he added, "No that it did me any good. She had eyes for another."

"Another?" she asked with interest.

"Darach."

Evelinde stiffened, her eyebrows rising. "Biddy's husband?"

"Aye." Tralin laughed at her expression, then explained, "Darach was-Actually, he was much like Tavis is now," he said with a shrug, his gaze sliding to the man.

Evelinde followed his gaze to see that Tavis was whispering something in the maid's ear that had her blushing and giggling.

"He was very similar in looks, too," Tralin continued. "Darach was fair-haired and handsome as Tavis is, and even more charming if you can imagine it."

Evelinde narrowed her gaze on Tavis as he slid an arm around the maid and drew her against him as he continued at her ear, though it was hard to tell if he were speaking or nuzzling the lass. The maid was looking a bit dazed, and Evelinde actually felt sorry for the girl, sure she was finding his attentions somewhat overwhelming. The man was definitely comely, and more than charming when he tried. She'd seen him working that charm on a few occasions since the men had arrived with the wagon. Just the night before, Evelinde had watched him tease, and flatter, and whisper to one of the maids she'd thought was more sensible until the girl allowed him to lead her to a quiet corner for more than talk. It looked to her as if this maid would hold up no better against his charms.

"Tavis causes quite a stir among the women, but Darach-" Tralin shook his head "He had every single female who came into his presence aflutter; from the very youngest to the oldest. How could a youth like I compete with that?"

Evelinde turned her gaze back to Tralin to see the wry expression on his face as he shook his head, and continued, "I was just a callow youth to Jenny compared to Darach's attentions. He teased and flattered her, and she soaked up every word like a flower desperate for attention."

"And Biddy did not mind?" Evelinde asked slowly, wondering for the first time if Darach were the lover. If he were, he had been a despicable cur, taking advantage of a young noblewoman like that. Not to mention his own sister-in-law.

"Nay." Tralin waved the thought away. "She knew it was all teasing. We all did. Although, I think Jenny might have been naive enough to believe every word he said. As much as she thought herself so much older and more sophisticated than Cullen and I-we were a whole year younger than she," he added, rolling his eyes. "In truth, she was terribly naive."

"She was only fifteen then?" Evelinde asked with a frown.

"Aye," Tralin said, and shook his head sadly. "And a young fifteen. She never would have survived marriage to the Campbell."

Evelinde nodded, and murmured, "Cullen mentioned that she was betrothed to marry him."

"Aye. I doona ken what her father was thinking agreeing to the match." He shook his head, but then added cynically, "Or, actually, perhaps I do. The man was imagining all that Campbell wealth and the powerful connections that the marriage would bring him. 'Tis no wonder the lass killed herself."

Evelinde considered that, her gaze sliding to Tavis, who was seated on the bench where the maid had been working. She was no longer working, however, but was seated in his lap, her arms around his neck, the rag she'd been cleaning the table with trailing down his back as he kissed her most thoroughly and eased one hand up her skirt.

Evelinde turned her glance quickly away, shaking her head at the man's idea of guarding her. Fergus was still watching her closely, of course, but… Her gaze slid back to Tavis, and she frowned. She had no difficulty believing Tavis might think nothing of charming his way under an unmarried noblewoman's skirts… if he thought at all before doing such things. Evelinde suspected the man didn't think at all, at least not with his head. And if Darach was as Tralin described…

Turning back to Tralin, she asked, "You are sure Tavis's father would have left Jenny alone?"

Tralin frowned at the question, and for one moment she saw uncertainty flicker on his face, but then he shook his head. "Nay. Darach was a bit of a rogue and liked to lift the skirts of the willing servant or wench, but he would never have dallied with a young noblewoman. And he would hardly ruin his own wife's sister. Biddy would have killed him did he try."

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