Mariote McCullum was very much in love, or so she fervently believed.
Why else would her heart skip a beat or two whenever she saw him? What other reason could there be for the way her stomach tingled with excitement at the mere thought of him?
Of course, the object of her devotion – and betimes torment – hadn’t a clue how she felt. Still, she loved the warrior with all her heart. Most women did, for he was so utterly handsome and charming. But Mariote loved him for more than his exceedingly good looks and the devilish smile he sometimes flashed the lasses. Nay, she loved him because he was good and kind and decent. Never had she chased after him like the other young women ’round her age did. Neither did she giggle at every little thing he might have to say.
That had to stand for something, didn’t it?
Nay, she was not infatuated with him as the others were. She was deeply in love with him.
But he never flashed his brilliant smile her way. Nor did he pick her up and twirl her around or wrap an arm around her shoulder as she’d seen him do so many times, openly flirting with any woman, no matter her age or marital status.
Any, save for Mariote.
Nay, he kept a wide birth when it came to Alysander McCullum’s eldest daughter.
’Twas Yuletide Eve and most of the clan were gathered in the grand gathering room. There was much music, dancing, and merry-making. And right in the thick of it all was Willem McCullum. Dancing with one lass or woman after another, and completely ignoring her. Her heart would thrum happily whenever he approached the table where she sat with her sisters. Only to want to break again when he walked right by her without so much as a glance in her direction.
And not once this night did he ask her. What she would not give for his acknowledgement of her existence.
Earlier, he had given her a devilish wink, but ’twas only as he bent low at the waist and asked her youngest sister, ten-year-old Orabilis, to dance. Orabilis, of course, refused, for she was still of an age where she believed all men, no matter their age, were naught more than a daft, insane group as a whole.
’Twas all too much to bear.
Quietly, Mariote slipped out of the gathering room – only faintly aware of her father’s gaze following her as she left—grabbed her cloak, and stepped out doors. The sky was indigo, dotted with twinkling stars. Flames from the torches fought a hard battle against the bracing wind, dimming and brightening, refusing, it seemed, to be tamped out.
The lass made her way up the stairs and onto the parapet. Snow twirled around her ankles as the wind stung her tear-streaked cheeks. Though chilled to the bone, it felt good to be outside, to be alone to think.
On the morrow, she would turn eight and ten. She thought she was far too young to feel as old as she did, but she could not help it. Most of the friends she had made since arriving here four years ago were all married. Two already had children of their own now, and three were with child.
And where be ye? She asked herself. Standin’ atop the parapet feelin’ sorry for yourself.
Known amongst her family—and everyone she’d ever met—for being a most practical and logical-thinking young woman, Mariote understood ’twas ridiculous to be feeling this way. Especially about a man who barely acknowledged her existence. But ’twas next to impossible to push all those feelings aside.
While her heart might be breaking, there was so much for her to be to be thankful for.
She’d been four and ten when Alysander McCullum married her mother. A few short months later, he adopted Mariote and her three younger sisters and, together, they moved back to his ancestral home. Since then, their little family had expanded. Three years ago, her mother had given birth to twin boys, and now was once again with child. Come spring, there would be yet another McCullum brought into this world.
Alysander openly prayed for this child to be another boy, because, according to him, having four beautiful daughters already was enough to turn a man’s hair white or put him in an early grave. We need to even the sides, he had often remarked playfully to his young sons, for we are seriously out-numbered. But Mariote knew it mattered not a whit to him what Moirra might have, as long as the child was healthy and naught happened to her mother.
Mariote’s life had changed dramatically since Alysander came into it. So much so that ’twas no longer recognizable. He had given her and her sisters a formal education, fine gowns, and a beautiful home. But he had given her much more than that; he’d given her the ability to trust again. Considering what had happened with her mother’s previous husband, that was no small feat.
Delmar—her mother’s third husband—had tried to rape Mariote on a cold winter’s night. Had her sister Muriale not been there, he would have succeeded. Delmar hadn’t known the lengths to which one sister would go to protect another. That ignorance had cost him his life, and very nearly Moirra’s, when she’d been falsely accused of his murder.
’Twas a good long while before Mariote could trust any man again.
But with time and Alysander’s unfailing devotion to her mother and family, Mariote was able to put that horrid night in the past. With steely-eyed determination, Mariote chose to make the best of her life. It helped, of course, knowing she was safe and protected. No one would dare try to attack her as long as her stepfather was around.
Now she was a woman full grown, even if her father still insisted otherwise. Under the tutelage of the clan’s healer, Eric McCullum, Mariote was learning to become a fine healer in her own right. Over the years, she’d lost count of the number of people she had helped nurse back to health, the number of hard McCullum heads she’d stitched up, and the number of broken bones she had helped to set.
Aye, she had a life many would be envious of.
Still, she longed for a husband and bairns of her own.
She longed, deep in her heart, for Willem McCullum.
The wind increased, howling like a macabre spirit from the netherworld, bringing with it bits of snow and ice. Drawing her cloak about her a bit tighter, she stared at the night sky. ’Twould probably be best to get back into the keep before she either froze to death or her father discovered her missing. Knowing Alysander as she did, he’d probably send out a search party.
Just as she was about to go back in, she saw a bright light flash across the sky. ’Twas a falling star! She laughed, thinking of how her mother believed that if you made a wish upon a falling star, ’twould come true within a fortnight.
Deciding a wish could not hurt, she made hers. “I wish…” she searched for just the right words. “I wish to be married before I turn nine and ten.”
’Twas a simple, heartfelt wish. ’Twas all she wanted in life.
What she could not know at that moment, was that someone else was out on the parapet, at the opposite end. Standing in the shadows, the young man made a wish of his own.