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As the laird enjoyed his mirth, Maggie Kerr entered the hall. "I am told we have a visitor, Grandsire," she said, coming forward.
Fingal Stewart watched her come. She was dressed in woolen breeks, boots, and an open-necked shirt. A wide leather belt encircled her waist. The skin of her neck and face was damp with obvious exertion. The lass was more than pretty, he realized, but the confident stride as she walked, the open curiosity in her hazel eyes, the set of her jaw, told him she would be neither biddable nor easy. He stood politely as she came forward.
"The king has sent ye a gift, lassie," the laird chortled. He was truly enjoying this.
"The king? A gift?" She looked genuinely puzzled. "The king has never set eyes upon me. Why would he send me a gift?"
"Ewan Hay went to visit His Majesty. He told him ye needed a husband, lass," the laird cackled. "And so the king has sent his own kinsman to wed ye." The laird waited for the outburst that was not long in coming.
"Ewan Hay told the king I needed a husband? Why would that pox-ridden donkey's ass do such a thing?" Then her eyes widened. "God's balls! He thought to steal Brae Aisir out from beneath us, Grandsire, didn't he? He thought the king would order me to wed him, the imbecile!" Then her eyes fixed themselves on her grandfather's companion. "Who are ye, sir?"
"Lord Fingal Stewart, madam," Fin answered her.
"And yer the king's kin sent to wed me?" she demanded.
"I am," he replied.
"And what, my lord, have ye done to win such a prize?" Maggie wanted to know.
"I have been loyal, madam. The Stewarts of Torra have always been loyal to the Stewart kings since the days of James the First. The king knows he may trust me to do as I have been bid," Fingal Stewart answered her in a hard voice.
"Torra? Of the rock?" Maggie was curious in spite of herself. "Where do ye come from, my lord?"
"Edinburgh, madam. We are the Stewarts of Torra because our house sits below the castle rock itself," he told her.
"Ye have no lands then," she said scornfully.
"I have a house, a manservant, twelve men-at-arms gifted me by the king, some coin with Moses Kira, the banker, a modest purse of gold I've brought with me, and James Stewart's favor. Naught else," Fingal Stewart responded honestly.
Maggie had not expected a candid answer. She had never met a man before who was quite so direct. Usually men struggled to please her, to win her overeven that obnoxious simpleton Ewan Hay. "So ye've come to wed me for my wealth," she said, contempt tingeing her voice.
"I've come to wed ye because I have been ordered to it," he replied as insultingly.
"If ye think to wed me, my lord, ye will have to comply with the same rules all my other suitors have faced. And none has succeeded to date. I'll wed no man, particularly a stranger, whom I cannot respect. If ye can outrun me, outride me, and outfight me, I'll go to the altar willingly, but not otherwise."
"There's no choice here, lass," the laird told his granddaughter. "This man has been sent by the king, and I tell you truthfully that I am happy to see him. Ye'll wed him, and that's the end of it. Will ye let a man like Ewan Hay dispossess ye when I'm dead? Make no mistake, lassie, without a strong husband to follow in my path, our neighbors will be fighting ye and one another for control of the Aisir nam Breug."
"But Grandsire, if he does not compete against me, those same neighbors will rise up against the Kerrs for having imposed our conditions upon them, but not upon the king's kinsman," Maggie argued. "Ye swore before them that all suitors must conform."
"The lass is right," Fingal Stewart agreed. "If I am to have the respect of yer neighbors, my lord, I must accept the lady's challenge. 'Twill not be difficult to overcome her. I'm surprised this Hay couldn't."
Maggie suddenly grinned wickedly. "I can outrun, outride, and outfight any man in the Borders, my lord," she repeated, "and I will, I promise ye, outrun, outride, and outfight ye."
"I am not from the Borders," Lord Stewart reminded her with an answering grin.
"Ye can have yer contest, Maggie," her grandsire said, "but first I will have the marriage contract drawn up. Ye and Lord Stewart will sign it. When the contest is over, win or lose, ye must accept the marriage and have yer uncle bless it in the chapel."
"Are ye afraid I'll beat ye?" Lord Stewart taunted her.
"I'm just concerned with having to live with a weakling," Maggie said sharply.
He laughed. "Madam, have ye ever been spanked?" he asked her.
She turned an outraged face to him. "Nay, never!"
"Ye will be, and soon, I have not a doubt," he told her.
"Lay a hand on me in anger, my lord, and I'll gut ye from stem to gudgeon," Maggie told him fiercely, her hand going to the dagger at her waist.
The laird's face grew grim at her combative words, but before he might admonish her, Lord Stewart laughed aloud.
"Marrying a stranger cannot be easy for either bride or groom, madam," he told her, grinning. "I can but hope this passion of yers extends to the marriage bed, for then we will suit admirably, and there will be no talk of murder, I promise ye."
Though Maggie was tall for a woman, he towered over her. She gasped and blushed at his blunt speech. No man had ever spoken so suggestively to her. For a moment she was at a loss for words. Then she said, "I'll sign the marriage contract, for in law that will make ye my husband. And I'm certain that will convince the greedier among our neighbors that the Aisir nam Breug's future ownership is settled. Particularly after they have met ye. Ye would appear to be reasonably intelligent and competent, my lord. But ye will nae bed me until ye have fulfilled my terms."
Excerpted from "The Border Vixen"
Copyright © 2011 Bertrice Small.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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