A Yuletide Tale of Second Chances
A wife may be courted, too…
Many would count Katherine Douglas fortunate indeed. Laird William Douglas is broad-shouldered, gentle-handed, everything a lass could dream.
But after four years of marriage, Katherine still knows little of what goes on in his heart. And she has yet to bear him an heir. The distance between them is too great—and so she flees over the snowy highlands to Glengarry Castle, home of her childhood, to set her husband free.
But William won’t let his wife slip away without a fight. Before long, he’s at her father’s threshold himself, witness to the rumbles of discontent in Glengarry, the bright joy of Yuletide at a family hearth, and the hidden needs of his own beloved…
“The boar’s head in hand bear I
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.”
—From “The Boar’s Head Carol”
“However many pretty leaves and sweet-smelling spices ye put on the sorry thing, ’tis still just the head of a deid pig, aye?”
—An observation from Nab, fool to the Earl of Glengarry.
“Christmastide is no time for such a Friday-face, Kat.”
Katherine quickly turned up the corners of her mouth. The frozen smile she forced into place felt almost natural. Heaven knew, she’d had enough practice, but her sister-in-law, Margaret, had caught her in an unguarded moment and that would never do. She flashed her teeth, praying no one in her father’s hall would know the difference between this mask she donned and a genuine expression of pleasure.
“I’m just a wee bit tired.” She forced down a gulp of her small beer and moved her food around her trencher without eating it. If Katherine had a single bite of songbird pie, she feared she’d retch. She picked out a sliver of meat and held it beneath the table for Angus. Her little terrier nibbled daintily, then licked the drippings from her fingers.
Angus cringed each time the deerhounds by the fire cracked the bones flung to them by the earl’s men-at-arms or fell to snapping and snarling among themselves over some choice tidbit. He didn’t dare stray far from Katherine’s side.
“After the work we did this day, I’m surprised ye’re not all in as well, Margie,” Katherine said.
The women had plenty to show for their labors. The great hall sparkled in the light of dozens of dear beeswax candles. The large end of the Yule log was crammed into the massive fireplace, roaring away cheerfully. Since it was long and thick enough to burn for the required twelve days of Christmas, most of the log stuck out into the hall between the trestle tables. Earlier in the day, before snow had begun falling in earnest, Katherine and Margaret had gathered armloads of greenery and festooned the hall with fragrant wreaths and garlands. The kissing bough, fashioned of ivy, fir, and mistletoe, had taken hours to construct and hang just so.
Not that I’ll have occasion to use it. An aching lump of loneliness swelled in Katherine’s chest.
“Right glad I am that ye decided to come celebrate Christmas with us.” Margaret finished the last of her pie with a satisfied sigh. “Thanks to ye, good-sister, I did more supervising than working. But if ye must know, women near their time don’t get tired, we get hungry.” She eyed Katherine’s trencher. “If ye’re not going to eat that . . .”
Kat shoved her food in front of her sister-in-law. After all, Margie was eating for two. Possibly three, given the way the fine fabric of her leine bulged.
Katherine forced herself to smile a bit wider so no one would suspect she died a little each time she looked at Margaret’s round belly. She raised her beer again.
It was comforting to hide behind the flagon. No one could know this Christmastide held not a drop of joy for her. Not even William, who ought to have known, who by rights ought to feel the same, had any idea what was festering inside her.
Or if he did, he didn’t care.
Katherine was dragged from her dark musings when Ranulf MacNaught, the most bellicose of her father’s pledge-men and her first cousin, snatched the bagpipes from the boy who’d been attempting to play them in fits and starts all evening. MacNaught started a wheezing squeal of his own. Even though he was Lord Glengarry’s nephew, Ranulf was given far more attention than Katherine thought he deserved. A certain faction of her father’s retainers fawned on Ranulf with houndlike servility. Now Lord Glengarry’s men-at-arms upended their drinking horns and banged them in time with the droning melody on the dark, scarred wood of the long tables. The pounding rhythm echoed in Katherine’s chest.
Her nose twitched. The smells of too much rich food, damp wool, unwashed dogs, and unkempt men couldn’t be completely obscured by evergreens and spice balls. The bright hall seemed suddenly very close, as if the stone walls were inching toward her.
“Odds bodkins, ’tis Christmas, Lady Katherine,” murmured a soft voice behind her. “Why are ye sad?”
When she turned toward the sound, she found Nab, her father’s fool, fingering the drooping ends of his ridiculous cap. His carrot-red hair shot out from under the cap in snarls and stringy braids. His multihued motley costume was stained with bits of the feast. Since Nab was usually the fastidious sort, except for his hair, which resisted all efforts to subdue it, Katherine guessed that food had been tossed at him, as if he were one of the deerhounds.
Apart from his odd appearance, she’d never understood why Lord Glengarry chose Nab to serve as his resident entertainer. Most court fools were sly and cruel in their comedy.
Nab was shy and quiet and hadn’t a mean bone in his slight body. But he had a habit of saying the most unusual things at the wrong time, which her father found hilarious. Nab’s gaze darted about, looking anywhere but at her. In truth, he rarely looked anyone directly in the eye. Even so, she knew his attention was fixed upon her, waiting for a response.
“Ye’re mistaken, Nab. I’m not sad. I’m tired.”
“Nay, tired is when ye yawn. Sad is when ye pretend to smile.” He frowned down at the turned-up tips of his own shoes. “I’m thinkin’ ye are the one who’s mistaken. When I’m confused, I go to sleep and it all becomes clear in my dreams. Ye should find yer bed then. That way, ye willna still be sad tomorrow.”
Margaret chuckled. “The fool’s right in an odd sort of way. Find your bed, lass. Ye’ve worked yourself into a frazzle since ye came home to help me. Things will only get more boisterous here in the hall this night.”
As if to prove her right, Ranulf laid aside the pipes and bellowed, “If we’re to get this Yuletide under way, we must crown a Laird of Misrule.”
Katherine’s father rose from his place on the dais, leaned his heavy knuckles on the table, and skewered MacNaught with a gimlet eye. His grey brows lowered in a frown, though everyone chuckled, sensing that their laird didn’t mean it. Each Yuletide, this sham deposing of their true leader was but the signal that the revels were to begin in earnest.
“Are ye saying ye dinna like the way I do things around here, MacNaught?” Lord Glengarry boomed.
“Nay, milord. Rest assured, we’d follow ye blithely to Hades, singing as we go all the rest of the year.” MacNaught scraped a quick bow. “But Christmastide needs a master of revels, a proper Abbot of Unreason, and my Lord Glengarry is the soul of reason and benevolent rule. What we need now is a decadent despot, a feeble-minded tyrant.” He scanned the room till his gaze fell on Nab. “What we need is a fool! Get him, lads.”
“No.” Katherine leaped to her feet, but she was too late. Some of the nearby men snatched up Nab, who hated to be touched at the best of times, and bounced him hand to hand over their heads across the hall. He made pitiful bleating noises, sounding like the mournful Glengarry sheep when shearing season was upon them.
“Put him down this instant,” Katherine demanded, but no one seemed to hear her, least of all her father, who was roaring with laughter along with the rest of them.
She stumbled after Nab, accidentally stepping on wee Angus in the process. The terrier yipped, alerting the deerhounds to his presence in the hall. The two largest bitches scrambled to their feet and lunged after him, as if he were a hare in the thicket. Angus skittered beneath the long trestle table with the deerhounds on his stubby tail, upending benches and knocking over diners who didn’t scatter out of their way quickly enough.
Between Nab being carried aloft and the hounds scuttling between men’s legs below, the great hall was a squirming mass of unwieldy limbs. Then to cap the pandemonium, the door burst open and a hoary breath of winter washed over the company.
And blew in William Douglas, Laird of Badenoch, with it.
He stomped his booted feet on the threshold, shaking free great chunks of white. Even though he’d drawn the end of his plaid over his head, his dark hair was dusted with snow. His brows were drawn together in a frown over his fine straight nose.
Something tingled to life in Katherine’s chest at the sight of him, but she tamped it down. Hope hurt too much. She’d thought herself safe from him for Christmas since a howling storm had roared since midday, but he’d evidently ridden through the blizzard to come after her.
Devil take the man’s stubbornness.
Angus, however, seemed relieved to see him. He made a beeline for William and, with a flying leap, launched himself into the man’s arms. The deerhounds surrounded them, snapping and growling.
“Ho there, wee beastie!” William grabbed the wriggling terrier and held him aloft to keep him from the deerhounds’ jaws while he set down his oilskin bag.
That bag boded ill. It seemed to be full, which meant he planned on staying at Glengarry Castle for a while.
When the terrier stilled, William tucked the little dog into his plaid. Angus snuggled into as small a ball as he could, safe in the folds of the tartan. He didn’t stir a hair when Will thundered at the deerhounds, “Back then, ye worm-eaten bitches!”
The hounds tucked their tails and scuttled away, casting backward glances at William. Angus peeped out from between William’s shirt and the swath of plaid draped over his shoulder, watching the bigger dogs slink back to the fire.
But Will had evidently already dismissed Lord Glengarry’s pack from his mind. As if he sensed her eyes on him, William lifted his dark head and turned to meet Katherine’s gaze. She was still halfway across the great hall, and yet, he seemed to know exactly where she was.
He always did.
How does he do that?
And if he could do that, why could he not also sense how very much she wished him gone?
But at least he didn’t fight his way across the crowded space to her. Nab was still being tossed from one group of men to another, wailing as he sailed through the air. William strode toward the mob.
When Nab landed on a group of hands near him, William grabbed the fool and pulled him down to stand on his own two feet. “The fool’s not a sack of barley to be flung about. What’s this great stramash about then?”
Ranulf MacNaught’s lip curled, but he did no more than clench and unclench his fists at his sides.
Will was a braw fellow, standing half a head above most of the men in the hall. His shoulders were as broad as a stone dresser’s and his reputation for feats of arms bordered on legendary. Katherine didn’t blame Ranulf for being intimidated. Better men than he had cringed under the Black Douglas glare.
“We’re crowning our Abbot of Unreason,” Ranulf said. “Not that it’s any concern of yours.”
“Well, then if Nab’s to be your king for the next twelve days, ye ought to give him a bit more respect.” William turned to the fool. “As the Abbot of Unreason, d’ye ken ye can give any order and your subjects must obey?”
“In truth?” Nab’s gaze flitted around like a midge, refusing to light on any one person for longer than a blink.
“Aye, in truth.” William could be as hard as flint when he chose, but now the kindness in his tone made Katherine’s chest ache. It would be so much easier to do what she must if he were a terrible bully. “What say ye, Laird Nab?”
“I say . . . I say . . .” Nab held his hands out at arms’ length. “Everybody step back.”
MacNaught grumbled, but he and the rest of his cohorts did as they were bid.
“Ye can order them to stand on their heads if it pleases ye,” Will suggested.
Nab’s red brows drew together. “It might leave a terrible boot print if Ranulf were to try to stand on his own head.”
William laughed at Nab’s misunderstanding. “It might at that. Though as hard as Ranulf MacNaught’s head is, I’ve doubts on that score. But it doesna change the fact that ye’ve been chosen as laird till Twelfth Night. Ye can make your own rules.”
“Odds bodkins, I’m not a laird.” Nab sneaked a glance at Katherine’s father. Lord Glengarry shot his fool a toothy grin and gave him a nod of encouragement. Nab blushed to the tips of his oversized ears. “Leastwise, I dinna feel like a laird.”
“Perhaps we can remedy that.” Will knelt to rummage in his oilskin bag. He pulled out a long object wrapped in soft doeskin and handed it to Nab.
With care, the fool unwrapped the parcel to reveal a small scepter. It was no longer than a child’s bow, but the gilt-edged silver was engraved with mystical symbols, whose meanings were far older than living memory. The polished stone atop its length gleamed as if it were lit with fire from within.
He would have to bring that benighted thing, Katherine thought, as she folded her arms over her chest.
Nab handed it back to William.
“Nay, ’tis not for me.” The fool sidled a few steps away. “’Tis too fine.”
“Nothing’s too fine for the Laird of Misrule,” William said with a smile that nearly broke Katherine’s heart. She’d fallen in love with that smile.
Loving the man had come later.
“Besides, this is a true scepter of power, mind ye,” Will went on. “’Tis old beyond reckoning and has been handed down in the Douglas family since the beginning, from father to son.”
“Is that so?” Ranulf MacNaught found his voice and a bit of his courage, but Kat noticed he hadn’t drawn any closer to William. “The scepter seems small for something ye’d have us believe is so great.”
“Just because something is small doesna mean it willna do the job,” Will said. “Is that not what ye’re counting on your women to believe, MacNaught?”
The hall rang with laughter at that. Ranulf’s face turned an unhealthy shade of purple, but William ignored his growing rage, turning back to Nab.
“Legend has it that the scepter came to the Douglas clan from the Fair Folk, and as ye know, many of the fey peoples are smaller than we. But it is a mistake to underestimate them.” William laid a hand on Nab’s shoulder and held out the scepter to him again. “Sometimes the small, the seemingly weak, are really the strongest of all.”
Nab reached out and haltingly took the scepter this time. Then he clutched it tight to his chest. “I’ll take good care of it till Twelfth Night, Lord Badenoch.”
“Call me William. Ye’re the laird now. And I know ye’ll have a care for the scepter, else I’d not have lent it to ye. Come, lads. Raise a glass to Laird Nab. Well may he reign, though it be not long!”
After the men drank to the Laird of Misrule’s health, Nab waved the scepter while he instructed his new subjects in the fine art of balancing on one foot while hopping in a circle. The half-drunken crowd followed suit to great hilarity.
William gave Katherine’s father a quick bow in nominal acknowledgment of his host, and then left the foolery behind to head across the room to her.
She wanted to pick up her skirts and flee, but she couldn’t stir a step. It was as if she were trapped in her recurring night phantom, the one where an ogre pounds down a mountainside toward her but she can’t move. Just as in her dream, her feet seemed rooted to the flagstone floor.
Will stopped before her, reached into his plaid, and pulled out Angus, offering the little dog to her as if he were a loaf of bread. Of course, this particular loaf squirmed and whined, his stubby legs churning the air as though he might swim through it to her if only William would turn him loose.
“This is yours, I believe.”
Katherine took the terrier from him. Angus melted into her, nuzzling her neck and pressing nosy doggie kisses against her skin. “Thank ye, Will.”
“I have somewhat else with me that’s yours as well.”
She knew better than to ask him what that might be. His dark eyes were speaking for him. Will could be silver-tongued when he wished to be, and she couldn’t bear to hear his protestations of love. Anything he said would ring false. She could endure much, but she drew the line at untruths.
“I suppose ye’ll be wanting to refresh yourself after your journey.” Normally, Margaret served as chatelaine since she was married to Katherine’s brother. It was her place to cater to the needs of guests, but since Margie was in the final days of her confinement, Katherine had taken over those duties when she arrived at Glengarry Castle two days ago. “I’ll show ye to your chamber.”
“So long as it’s also your chamber,” William said, shifting his oilskin pack on his shoulder. “Or has it slipped your mind that ye’re my wife?”
“Marlowe’s 16th-century romance glows with warm and powerful emotion. After multiple miscarriages, Katherine, Lady Badenoch, decides it’s time to leave her husband, William. It is heart-wrenching to see two people who love each other so much also hurt so badly and feel unable to comfort each other. Kat’s despair over not being able to carry a child is deep, and Marlowe doesn’t gloss over the pain or provide a pat miracle ending. Against the backdrop of a threatened siege and the joys of Christmas, Will and Kat forge a stronger bond that makes all the tears worthwhile.”
~ Publishers Weekly