“Damn, the woman is out of control,” Faolan muttered as he stomped through the arch. The servants had scrubbed the great hall of the MacKay keep within an inch of its life. Under the command of Mistress Sorcha, no corner or crevice was safe from scrutiny.
As overseer of the care and upkeep of the castle, Mistress Sorcha ruled with a firm and unrelenting hand. Heaven help the servant foolish enough to ignore any instruction given. If unlucky or daft enough to be caught slacking, they’d best be giving their soul to their maker, for Mistress Sorcha would surely have their arse.
Faolan groaned, giving a look at the floors, wondering if it was safe to step any farther. God’s beard. ’Twas a sorry day when a man feared walking in his own keep. The lads had swept the great stones free of the soiled rushes and scoured them with lye and boiling water. Wrinkling his nose, Faolan cringed; the bite of the lye nearly burnt his eyes from the sockets. His keep would never smell the same. What the hell was the woman thinking? The slabs shone in the glow of the burning torches as though the stones had just been set.
“This is such a waste of time and manpower,” Faolan grumbled as he stomped his way toward the kitchens. He shook his head as he watched a serving lad scurry by with two buckets of steaming water to the other side of the room.
The servants scalded and rubbed down the tables and benches until not a drop of grease stained the boards. They had cleaned and greased the irons upon the hearths; the tools and huge swinging arms holding the black pots glistened in the flickering light. The hearths had been shoveled clear of excess ash and debris. Fresh split wood stood stacked at the ready. The maids had drawn down the tartans and banners from the rafters and beaten the dust from them before they’d been re-hung.
The surrounding hills had supplied overflowing baskets of heather. The fragrance wafted throughout the keep. Faolan rubbed the back of his hand across his nose. His stomach clenched at the scent of the sweet perfume; he preferred the acrid sting of the antiseptic lye. The scent of the heather reminded him of his parents’ funeral. The fragrance brought back the darkness of that day and the stabbing loneliness still echoing through their empty chambers.
Ivy, the symbol of eternal fidelity, wound its way into every nook and crevice. Braided boughs of the emerald leaves formed into an archway at the head of the hall. Fidelity. Faolan snorted. What a mockery. There would be no question of faithfulness in this union.
Casks of wine and barrels of ale lined the farthest wall and stood in neat piles beside the stairs. More stood at the ready, stored in racks in rooms offset from the hallway. The banquet required the meat of three wild boars; a successful hunt produced the necessary pigs. They now turned on spits above open fire pits behind the kitchens. Faolan spared an approving nod at the red-faced lads stationed at the fire pits. Sweat poured in rivulets down their faces as they kept the massive sides of meat sizzling and turning over the glowing coals. Breads, cheeses, and fruits of the season piled high upon serving boards along the tables. Not a spot was empty on any of the sideboards in the kitchen. All stood ready for the start of the celebration. Faolan hoped his clan was happy. This damn betrothal was finally set. All this food. Faolan clenched his teeth. His clan could’ve survived on it for half the winter.
Faolan paused just outside the kitchen doorway and peered around the corner. He’d learned long ago if he wanted to know what was truly going on in his keep, all he had to do was listen at the doorway of his own kitchens.
Mistress Sorcha made one more round through the kitchens, her ample girth swishing her black skirts upon the floor. She hefted a long-handled ladle from its hook upon the mantel and slid the heavy lid from the pot. Her eyes narrowed as she tested a bubbling broth hissing above the fire. “Bring me the dried rosemary hanging from the farthest shelf and fetch me the crock of salt.”
A spindly kitchen maid hopped from the bench where she’d sat scrubbing the skins from a pile of carrots. She returned with the herbs and the crock of salt, holding them aloft until Mistress Sorcha had taken what she needed.
With a satisfied nod, Sorcha smiled her approval to the maid and replaced the ladle upon the hook. “Everything must be perfect. The clan has long waited for the day The MacKay would take a wife.”
“The clan has long waited for additional money to be added to the coffers,” Faolan mumbled under his breath. At least this would silence his advisors; it was either marry or murder the bastards. Faolan’s stomach growled as he shifted positions; Sorcha’s stew smelled delicious.
As she returned the crock of salt to its designated shelf, the kitchen maid scurried back to the bench and the enormous heap of carrots. “Have ye seen Laird MacKay’s betrothed, Mistress Sorcha? Is she a fine woman worthy of our chieftain’s good name?”
Faolan leaned closer, biting back a bitter laugh to be sure he heard what Sorcha replied.
At the girl’s question, Sorcha’s smile faded. “Lyla, I have heard the chatter of the chambermaids and I will have none of it repeated. I havena seen the lady, myself. But I am certain she will be a perfect match for our fine laird.”
Faolan’s heart warmed as he overheard her words. The one bright spot in this sorry mess was Sorcha’s loyalty to her laird.
With a curt nod toward a basket of vegetables sitting beside the doorway, Sorcha ended the direction of Lyla’s conversation. “Now make haste, Lyla. The feast will be upon us soon and ye have yet to chop all the vegetables for the other stewpot. Once ye have finished with the carrots, be sure to brush the dirt from the mushrooms that ye spread upon the shelf in the larder yesterday eve. I will be needing them for the gravies for the meat. They must have something to sop with their bread.”
As she re-tied her apron around her ample hips, Sorcha headed out of the kitchens toward the great hall. As she barreled through archway, she nearly bumped into Faolan as he slipped away from the door. “Such a fierce look! Ma laird, what appears to be amiss? What have we forgotten for your celebration?” Sorcha rushed to his side, knotting her apron between her hands as her gaze darted about the room.
Raising his hands as though to ward off her words, Faolan looked about the room at all the preparations and swallowed a groan of disgust. “Ye have done well, Sorcha. Be at peace. As usual, all is perfection.”
Sorcha tightened her lips into a worried line and patted her graying hair back from her weathered face. “Forgive me, sir. But for a man who’s about to meet his betrothed, ye seem sorely troubled.”
Faolan scrubbed the stubble of his beard as he sank to the bench and dropped his head between his hands. “Sorcha, ye have been like a mother to me ever since my own mother jumped to her death. Even before then, ye relentlessly spoiled me when e’er I wandered into the kitchens. However, in this matter, ye canna help me, nor can I seek your counsel. I have agreed to this match for the good of the clan and that is all that best be said.”
Sorcha knotted her hands in her apron, fixing him with a worried scowl. “Blessings to ye, ma laird. Trust me all will be well. I shall leave ye in peace. I shall be in the kitchens if ye need me. All ye need do is call.”
Faolan raised his head. He glanced about the room and took in the betrothal decorations with a snort of disgust. This was such a mockery. His clan sought to celebrate the securing of lands, cattle, and possible future holdings. They didna give a damn if he took a wife.
Faolan had never met Dierdra Sinclair, but he’d received reports from his informants about her simple mind and her childlike ways. Her father had been trying to wed her off for years, but her affliction had made a desirable union difficult to obtain. An avaricious man, Gordon Sinclair not only wanted rid of his vacant-eyed child, but as chieftain of the Sinclair clan, he wanted to profit from the match by obtaining an alignment with a stronger clan. In his mind, the fact that his daughter might have the mind of a child had nothing to do with her ability to breed.
When Faolan had learned of Gordon Sinclair’s offer and the innocence of his only child, Faolan had agreed to the match for two very simple reasons. If he took Dierdra to wife, it would silence the incessant droning of his advisors for him to marry. It would also protect the childlike Dierdra from the dangers of a less scrupulous man, one who might not give a second thought to raping a helpless innocent.
The match with the reportedly sweet, daydreaming Dierdra would perfectly suit Faolan’s needs. He’d sworn he’d never open his heart to the pain he’d see his parents suffer. Because of the passion they felt for each other, their lives had met a tragic end: his father murdered while protecting his mother and then his mother had taken her own life. Faolan had sworn he’d never bring a child into the world just to abandon it when his own life ended. Love and children brought nothing but pain and suffering. Someone else could take the lairdship.
Faolan rose from the table, rolling his weary shoulders to work out the tension knotted through his muscles. He’d much rather be in the courtyard, slicing the air with his sword as he practiced with his warriors. With a resigned sigh, he plodded to the staircase leading to his private rooms. He stopped by the stairwell and tucked a cask of ale under one arm. This one belonged to him. Lore, I need a drink. His mood darkened as though he headed for the gallows rather than to meet his bride. It was time he readied for his betrothal banquet and resigned himself to his fate. In but a few short hours, he promised himself to a wife, whether he wanted one or not.
A satisfying blend of saucy sensuality and heartrending sincerity - 4 Stars - RT Book Reviews