Two months later
After all the weeks they’d been away, savoring each other’s company, travelling together, their homecoming was bittersweet.
Now she’d have to share Gillebride with his duties, while she would be forever under the watchful eyes of her family. All the same, Arya’s heart lifted at the distant sight of the castle tower as they approached through the glen.
It had been an exciting time.
After their wedding they’d travelled to Badenoch so Gilly could discuss the estate with his cousin Angus, who was now the Laird of the MacThomas Clan in Gillebride’s late father’s place.
While he bore Angus no ill will and was content to leave him in charge of the clan, Angus was stiff and suspicious in his company and they’d spent as little time there as possible.
Gillebride mused on his father’s fate. “I dinnae mourn him, Arya,” he’d confided, “but the hatred I bore him all those years is gone. His death from a flaming arrow has brought some justice tae the death of me wife and daughter by fire.”
Arya tightened her grip on his hand and reached to kiss him.
When they at last turned their backs on Castle MacThomas and rode away, there was a sense between them that some score had been settled and they could now look to the future and move beyond the past.
Gillebride was keen to return to Castle Ardtun to settle matters with the MacKinnons. As he would not be returning, he wished them to be aware of his newfound happiness with Arya, and to thank them for all the courtesies of their home and clan they’d showered him with over the years.
They were welcomed by Blaine, Ivy and the twins, and Errol, Edina and her sisters, and spent a happy time there. They left bearing good wishes and messages of love for Hannah.
For the rest of the time, they meandered. Taking their time to sit by the shores of Loch Linnhe and catch a fish or two, finding inns with comfortable beds where they could rest and make love all night.
Finally, before setting off on the final leg of their journey home, they stayed two nights with the Camerons, supping on delicious French dishes, Arya taking note of all the pretty French touches Adèle had wrought, in the hope that she could do the same in the castle they were planning in which she and Gillebride would make their home.
As they finally approached the portcullis of Castle MacDonell, Arya breathed a deep, happy sigh.
“Home at last,” she said, smiling at Gilly. They urged their horses to a canter and waited impatiently while the gate was slowly raised.
A cheer broke out as they rode into the keep. There, on the castle steps were all the servants, and a beaming Nicol, the seneschal. Hurrying across the cobblestones were Payton, Taveon and Hannah, their faces wreathed in smiles.
“It’s good tae see ye,” Payton said, lifting Arya off her feet for a hug while Taveon seized Gillebride in a bear hug.
Hannah, her eyes alight with excitement, gave Arya kisses on both cheeks and then wove her arms around Gillebride as soon as Taveon released him.
“Our scouts rode in a while ago with the news they’d spotted yer party along the glen. We’ve a fine feast awaiting ye once ye’ve cleared the dust of travel from yer faces,” Payton said.
They retreated to their bedchamber where Arya changed from the britches she’d been wearing for riding into a freshly laundered blouse and kirtle.
She was seated in front of her mirror undoing her braids when Gillebride approached. After planting soft kisses at her nape, he finished unravelling the last of the braids, easing her tangles through his fingers. He took the brush from her table and set about gently brushing her hair.
Holding the shining tresses in his hands, he breathed in deeply. “How I love the sweet scent of roses in yer hair,” he muttered, bending to kiss her lips.
Lost in a long, luxurious kiss, they missed the sound of a gentle tap on their door and the creak as the door swung open.
It was Taveon, who cleared his throat as they pulled apart, laughing at the sight of him looking so flustered.
“Sorry tae disturb ye,” he said, “but Payton is waiting impatiently in the great hall fer ye tae dine with us. He’s eager tae hear of yer travels and tae give ye our news.”
Hand in hand they followed Taveon down the stairs. Since the happy day of their wedding, it was such joy to openly walk hand in hand in front of all the castle.
The cooks had done a fine job of preparing roast venison and wildfowl, rabbit stew, carrots, nips, and a heap of wild greens foraged from the woods. The dessert was a delicious custard swirled with whipped cream, raspberries, blackcurrants and strawberries.
“Has aught been heard from the MacQuarries?” Gillebride asked.
Beside him, Arya caught her breath, a tiny chill running through her.
Payton smiled and shook his head. “I believe the new laird has his hands full dealing with the ruffians that surrounded his father. But he’s a strong-willed lad and I daresay we’ll have nae more trouble with his clan.”
Taveon shook his head. “There’ll be nae more talk of vengeance or bloodshed. The MacQuarries will change their ways soon enough.”
While they dined, Hannah sat quietly. “Once the men have taken tae the study I wish tae show ye how yer roses are blooming in the garden. I’ve tended them in yer absence and they give me great pleasure. But I’m so happy ye’re here again. I’ve been longing fer me sister’s return.”
Replete after the dining that went on, even after they’d eaten and drunk their fill, Arya looked forward to a stroll in the garden. She and Arya got to their feet from the long timber table and headed for the rose arbor.
Gillebride joined the others in Payton’s study, no doubt to quaff a few drams of whisky and regale them with stories of their travels. In particular, he would pass on the plans for the coming wars he’d learned from Blaine and Errol at Ardtun.
The breeze in the garden was fresh and cool and Arya drew her shawl over her shoulders as they strolled in the perfumed air to the arbor to take a seat there.
Remembering the time she’d sat here with Gillebride and the kisses they’d shared brought a smile to her lips.
Hannah sat, patting the space next to her.
“Sit down dear Arya, I have much tae tell ye.”
Arya looked up at the sound of a loud “Meow,” and a large furry form emerged from a shady spot.
“Grimalkin,” she cried, lifting the purring moggie into her arms. “Ye’re here at last.”
Hannah chuckled. “Aye, all our baggage arrived last week. Yer wee pots of herbs are doing well. I’ve put them near the infirmary where Sister Margaret is watering them and keeping an eye on them.”
“Ah,” Arya said leaning back, cradling the bundle of fur in her arms. “I am so happy.”
Hannah clapped. “And I am so happy fer both of us.”
Arya looked at her friend. Hannah’s eyes were shining and her cheeks, so thin and pale when she and Gillebride had left a little more than a month ago, were plump and flushed with pink.
“Ye look well, Hannah.”
“And so I am.” She took Arya’s hand. “I have such wonderful news.”
Arya caught a breath. “Ye’re nae…?”
Hannah nodded excitedly. “Aye. I’m tae have a bairn of me own before long.”
Now it was Arya’s turn to clap. She leaned over to give Hannah a kiss, dislodging Grimalkin, who meowed in protest as he slid to the grass at Arya’s feet and commenced to wash.
“I had hardly dared tae hope when ye were so sick before our wedding. I prayed it was merely the sickness of childbearing that caused ye tae hate yer food.”
Hannah laughed. “Merely the sickness of childbearing. Ye wait, Arya MacThomas, when it’s yer turn ye’ll nae use the word merely.”
Arya took her in her arms. “I’m so happy fer ye. When dae ye think the wean will make his entrance intae the world?”
“I’ve consulted with Sister Margaret and Peg the midwife, and they’re both of the view that it will be around four months from now.”
“Oh. So soon. I shall have tae spin some wool and start knitting a wee blanket fer the wean. He’ll be here fer the winter so he’ll be in need of something warm and cozy.”
“And I’ve already started knitting, Arya, and so has dear Maggie. The wee soul will never feel the cold blast of winter.”
When at last Arya and Gillebride were cuddled together in bed, warm and snug under their fur coverlet, she turned to him, smoothing the long dark hair behind his ears, resting her head on his chest, reveling in the feel of his strong arm around her and the steady beat of his heart against her ear.
“So, Hannah and Taveon are expecting a bairn around November,” she whispered, running a finger across the thicket of black hairs on his chest.
He toyed with her long tresses, winding a curl around his finger.
“Is a bairn something ye wish fer lass? I’ve never spoken of it. After the loss of me wee Claray I’d never dared hope that one day I could be blessed with another bairn.”
“Oh, Gilly,” she said, smiling, “I wish nothing more now that we are wed, than tae fill our new castle with the laughter of children. I want tae see them climb on yer lap and laugh at the stories ye’ll have tae tell them.”
He lay still a moment and she fancied he was thinking about the picture she painted.
Then he seized her and pulled her to sit atop him, so that her legs were straddling his giant frame.
She bent and took his lips in hers and they kissed. It started long and dreame, but as their tongues found each other and his hands came up to fondle her breasts, their passion grew and the kiss grew heated, deeper, until they could no longer contain the wild desire that was overtaking them.
Gilly moaned as she stroked the hard length of him.
“I wish that part of ye tae be inside me, MacThomas.”
“Aye, lass, I’ll dae as ye demand,” he said, raising her with his two hands at her waist and lowering her, so that her slick, sensitive folds opened over him. He slid his hard member inside her slowly, inch by inch, taking his time and making her moan. Until impatient she cried out and lowered herself, taking him to the hilt.
“Let’s see if we can start making a bairn right here and now,” he managed before he was lost and quite beyond speech.
“Gilly, aye,” she said, moaning as he thrust harder. “I dae adore ye so, love of me life.”
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