The steaming scent of cloves and ginger sprinkled on her
latest brew brought Cristiana none of the usual pleasure.
She breathed in the fragrant bouquet wafting over the
boiling honey and water, testing for the right mix of heat
and herbs to her most popular mead. But although the
balance smelled fine now, she feared this batch would be
bitter in the end. In her experience, the best meads were
brewed when her heart was light and, right now, worry
weighed her down more heavily than the ice-coated fur she'd
worn outside into the storm.
The presence of an enemy under her roof had not been far
from her mind this past hour as she'd hastened to oversee
final preparations for an elaborate meal. She had to run
the keep for her invalid father while maintaining the
duties of a lady, since her mother had died many years ago
and her sister had been sent far away after being ruined by
Duncan the Brave's callous kin.
How dare he call upon her now after siding with his brutish
half brother? Cristiana would be hard-pressed to hide her
secret from Duncan while he took shelter here.
Stirring the bubbling mead mixture one last time, Cristiana
left the squat brewery tower her father had built to
encourage his daughter's gift. He had tried to dissuade her
from mead-making for years, declaring the interest to be
the purview of lesser men's daughters. But when the lords
of the realm began requesting it for purchase and foreign
kings sent gifts to obtain a small store, her sire had seen
the wisdom of indulging her.
Now she raced through the keep to attend her guests,
knowing she would not have time to change before the meal.
It had been all she could do to hide the evidence of her
secret from her new visitor and his men. The preparations
had been hasty and not as thorough as she would have liked,
but her temporary arrangements would hold at least until
after they supped.
The New Year's feast had always been celebrated at
Domhnaill with great festivity, and Cristiana could not
afford any changes in routine that would hint at her
Wiping her brow of the perspiration accumulated from her
dash to the great hall, she straightened a tapestry and
measured what else was left to do before the meal. Quickly,
she handed off her fur cloak to a giggling server who
pinched and teased a squire of one of the guests. Cristiana
gave the maid a stern look that held the promise of more
work if she did not mind herself.
"You were that young once, my lady."
The rich roll of a deep male voice came from behind her,
startling her even as it called forth a wealth of memories
that made her feel foolish. Oh, how she had craved that
voice in her ear once upon a time.
Turning, she faced her enemy full-on without the safety of
her guard tower and a moat separating them.
Duncan the Brave, the legitimate son of Malcolm Culcanon,
rose from a seat he'd taken in the shadowed corridor
outside the great hall. His shoulders blocked the light
from the nearest torch, casting his tall, formidable frame
into a dark outline. Five years had taken little toll on
his handsome features. Women all over the Highlands vied
for his attentions ever since he'd been a youth. Cristiana
herself had found him most pleasing when they'd met. The
keenness of his dark green gaze mirrored his fine
intellect. His close-cropped brown hair lacked the flowing
beauty of more vain men, but Cristiana appreciated the
cleanliness apparent in the sheen of it. Most of all, she
admired the warrior strength of him, his chest so solid, it
felt as if he wore chain mail upon it or rather, it had
once upon a time when she'd ventured a touch. She'd
hardened her heart to this arrogant man and all his family
"Fortunately, I was never that foolish." She turned from
him to welcome two other guests who'd been invited for the
winter revelry, a neighboring lord and his lady, who had
supplied Domhnaill with men and allegiance for generations.
"Duncan!" the velvet-swathed mistress, Lady Beatrice of the
Firth, gushed with delight upon recognizing Cristiana's
companion. She clamped a heavily jeweled hand to her breast
as if to quiet her heart. "How good to see you. We have
heard about your success in driving the Normans from our
"We must take our seats," her husband interrupted, his low
tone laced with warning. "Duncan has only sought shelter
because of the storm. No doubt, he is weary with travel."
Forestalling the argument that appeared imminent from
Beatrice, Peter of the Firth dragged his wife into the hall.
"If you are stirred by the dance music, my lord," Beatrice
called over her shoulder with a simpering smile, "I will be
most glad to partner you."
Cristiana would have taken the exchange as an excuse to
sidestep Duncan, but he must have sensed her motive, for he
clamped a broad hand about her wrist and tugged her back
into the shadows behind a giant tapestry.
"Sir," she protested, yanking her hand back and finding it
Alarm pricked over her skin. No one could see them here.
Would he brutalize her as his half brother had brutalized
her sister? He had made no secret of his fury over her
choice to break their betrothal.
"We need to speak freely before we dine." He spoke into her
ear, holding her much too close. "I am prepared to do you
homage tonight as a peace offering. Will you accept?"
She tried to quiet her alarm by recalling how many
important lords and ladies were on the other side of the
tapestry. Duncan could not possibly mean her harm. Taking a
deep breath, she calmed herself. And in the space of a
heartbeat, she noticed the laundered scent of a fresh tunic
and the warmth of his powerful form beneath it. His fingers
spanned the inside of her arm while his thigh brushed
against her skirts.
Her heart thundered at the audacity of his suggestion and
"I will offer you shelter and nothing else." She tried not
to think about the last time he'd held her thus. The
sweetness of the kiss that had made her long to be a wedded
woman back before she knew how faithless a Culcanon could
be. For all that Duncan had expressed outrage at her
refusal to wed, he'd wasted no time in reuniting with his
lover at a nearby keep. "Do not take a charitable action
for granted, lest you find your men escorted from my gates
with all haste."
"It would not be wise to rebuff the king's new ally in
front of so many witnesses, Cristiana." His hold on her
eased. "Perhaps you have not received news of the kingdom
since your father has been ill, but I assure you, Malcolm
is unifying his holdings and carving a new order. The world
has changed much in five years."
On the other side of the tapestry, more guests arrived and
a minstrel struck up a bright tune sure to draw the rest of
the keep to the hall for holiday revelry.
As early as this morning, a smoothly run supper to distract
from her father's continued absence would have been her
biggest concern. Now, Duncan suggested her efforts fooled
no one, and worse, her family's standing might be suffering
for the lack of a Domh-naill presence near King Malcolm.
"You forget yourself, sir." She slid free of his grip and
busied her nervous hands by straightening her belt. "The
Domhnaills have long been loyal supporters to the crown.
And although we never troubled the king with the injury
your kin did to mine, it is not too late for us to appeal
for justice if you wish to bring the matter to his
She had not forgotten the hurts her sister had suffered.
The humiliation. The bruises. The recollection steeled her
spine and deafened her ears to the other memories of that
summer when the Domhnaill women had admitted treacherous
men into their hearts.
"Cristiana, do not allow old angers to blind you. Domhnaill
needs a leader, and if your da does not choose a successor,
the king will find one for him."
The possibility so closely echoed her deepest fears that
she felt Duncan had breached her walls for the second time
Indeed, she was so rattled that she did not protest when
Duncan took her arm to lead her away from the tapestry and
into the dim corridor once more.
"I am flattered to be your dining partner this eve," he
announced loudly, as if they'd been in the middle of a
conversation. By taking advantage of her tongue-tied state,
he'd just claimed the seat beside her at sup.
Cristiana knew she needed to regain her wits before he
commandeered the whole holiday revel.
The minstrel's song had reached a high note and the great
hall was nearly full. Laverers circled the tables, offering
a basin and towel to diners wishing to wash up.
"A poor traveler will always find a meal and a warm hearth
at Domhnaill," she returned with forced brightness, holding
herself stiffly away from him.
How did he know so much about the problems here? Swallowing
back her fear, she allowed herself to be guided through the
diners, toward the dais. Green pine garland hung from the
rafters, infusing the room with the scent of a forest. A
jongleur whom she'd named master of the revel was leading
the servers in a song of welcome while guests found their
"The hearth is all that is warm these days," Duncan
whispered for her ears alone. "I remember when that was not
"You've no rightâ€”" she began, but cut herself off as a
server approached them. The maid carried a heavy flagon of
mead, reminding Cristiana of her first duty as hostess.
Duncan must have remembered, as well, for he leaned close
again, not bothering to hide his nearness from her guests.
"Perhaps you will recall some of the old warmth when you
must serve me?" He eased away from her, but masked his
callousness with a low bow over her hand.
Fearing he might kiss her fingers in the courtier's way,
she snatched her hand back at once. But Duncan only smiled
and took his seat at the high table.
Cursing him roundly under her breath, she accepted the
pitcher of mead and approached the dais. The lady of
Domhnaill had always served her guest personally to begin
meals in this ancient hall, and Cristiana had no intention
of straying from the tradition when she had fought so long
and hard to show the world everything ran smoothly here.
"To your health, my lord," she intoned, even managing to
dip her head slightly in his direction as she did so.
Thankfully, the forced curtsy helped to hide her burning
With hands that hardly quivered, she approached Duncan the
Brave and poured him a cup of her finest mead as if her
world wasn't falling apart. As if her father wasn't dying.
As if her beloved sister hadn't been exiled.
And almost as if Cristiana wasn't raising her sister's
illegitimate babe in secret.
The sweetness remained. Yet there was more to it than that.
Duncan rolled the honey mead on his tongue hours later,
after the meal had ended and the dancing commenced, trying
to identify what was different about Lady Cristiana's famed
brew from the last time he'd had a taste. He watched the
lady herself as she bowed serenely to her dancing partner,
an elder of her clan who served as a close adviser to her
father. Like her mead, Cristiana was more complex than he
recalled. Time had erased the softness of girlhood from her
face, leaving a more elegant and refined beauty. She moved
with grace and ease as she danced, though her serious
expression made him think she was more apt to be discussing
war strategy than holiday celebrations.