Devil of the Highlands Chapter Eleven

"There you are."

Evelinde let the keep doors close behind her and saw Mildrede seated in one of the chairs by the fire.

"Lady Elizabeth was looking for you a few moments ago," the woman announced, as Evelinde approached.

"Do you know what Aunt Biddy wanted?" she asked, noting that the maid had her green gown on her lap and was apparently mending a small tear in it. It was the dress she'd been wearing the day before. Evelinde must have caught it on a branch during her climb and caused a small tear.

Mildrede shook her head. "She did not say, but I imagine it has to do with meals for the week. Or perhaps she wishes to restock supplies since Cook will soon be back."

Evelinde nodded, then hesitated, briefly torn between seeing what the woman wanted and heading above stairs. In the end, she decided to replace the pin first. The broach had caused her enough difficulties, and with the way her luck was running of late, she feared getting distracted and losing it again.

"If Biddy comes looking again, tell her I have just taken something above stairs and will return directly to speak to her." Evelinde started to turn away then, but paused at a clucking sound from Mildrede.

"You have grass stains on your skirt," she pointed out with irritation. "I swear child, I do not know what has happened. You have ever been careful with your clothes ere this, but seem to be ruining another one each day since the day you married laird Cullen."

Frowning, Evelinde glanced down at her skirt, grimacing when she saw that while she had escaped Angus unscathed, her gown had not. Sighing, she shook her head with irritation, and muttered, "I shall change while I am up there."

"I shall help." Mildrede started to rise, but Evelinde waved her back down.

"I can manage on my own, Mildrede. Carry on with what you are doing."

The maid sank back in her seat with a nod, and Evelinde hurried to the stairs and up. Her first stop on reaching the room was Cullen's chest. She replaced the broach where she'd found it with a little sigh, then closed the chest and stood to cross to her own, removing her gown as she went.

Pausing by her chest, Evelinde took a few moments to examine the gown. It was one of her favorites, and she thought Cullen must like it, too, for of all her gowns, this and her forest green one were the ones he'd chosen to pack when he'd taken her away from d'Aumesbery. Since the man spoke so little, that was the only way she could judge what he liked.

Fortunately, the grass stains were not too bad, and at least there were no rips or tears. A good soaking and a little hard scrubbing should remove the stains she thought with relief and rolled the gown up and set it aside to take below for cleaning. Evelinde then moved to her chest, opened it, and bent to rummage through its contents for another gown to wear.

She never heard the bedchamber door open, and jumped with surprise as arms slid around her from behind.

Evelinde didn't need to look to see who it was. She recognized the hands that suddenly covered her breasts as well as the way Cullen cupped and kneaded them through the cloth of her chemise.

"I came to ask ye something," Cullen rumbled by her ear.

"Oh?" Evelinde sighed, her eyes closing as she leaned back into him. She covered his hands with hers, squeezing encouragingly as he caressed her.

"Aye, but ye've managed to distract me."

She opened her eyes at that, a breathless laugh slipping through her lips. "I have done nothing."

"Ye were bending over the chest in naught but yer shift," Cullen explained.

"And that distracted you?" Evelinde asked with surprise, tipping her head back to peer at him.

"Oh, aye," Cullen growled, and claimed her lips even as he swept her into his arms and carried her to the bed.


Evelinde opened her eyes but didn't raise her head from her husband's chest. He had exhausted her with his passion, and she was too spent to bother, so merely tilted her face up to glance at him. "Aye?"

"Tell me about the other day in the woods before I came upon ye."

Evelinde raised an eyebrow at the demand, then shrugged where she lay half on top of him. He was the one who had placed her there, and she had been content to remain. Now that he was talking to her, however, she felt self-conscious about her position and started to shift away to lie beside him, but his hand was suddenly there to stop her. Apparently, he liked her where she was. Relaxing back against him, Evelinde pursed her lips and shrugged.

"What do you wish to know? I got lost, climbed a tree to find the castle, then you came."

"Ye asked if I'd been following ye," he reminded her.

She wrinkled her nose. The events seemed so far away now. They had only been the day before, but so much had happened since then that they seemed a far-off memory, and Evelinde felt foolish about her fear in the woods that day.

"Wife," he growled insistently.

"I thought I heard someone," she admitted slowly. When his eyes sharpened on her, she quickly added, "But 'twas probably just a rabbit or vole."

Cullen was silent, his expression troubled. "And the arrow?"

Her eyebrows rose, but she shrugged." 'Twas probably there from a long time ago, as you suggested."

"Ye did no seem sure of that at the time," he pointed out.

Evelinde glanced away and shrugged. " 'Tis silly really." She paused and blew out an exasperated breath before explaining. "I was climbing the tree when I thought I heard a whiz thunk, and I—"

"A 'whiz thunk'?"

Evelinde chuckled at his confused expression, but explained. "A whizzing sound as if something had gone past me, then a thunk as if it had hit the tree."

When Cullen's eyebrows drew together on his forehead, she rushed on to say, "It was probably a branch or bird's nest dropping past me and hitting the tree on its way down. I was shaking the branches a good bit with my climbing."

His expression did not clear.

Evelinde continued, "Anyway, I instinctively released one of the branches I held to look around and see what I had heard. The branch I stood on chose that moment to snap, and I grabbed for something to hold on to, and once I regained a safe purchase with my feet and peered at what I had grabbed, I saw that it was an arrow." She shrugged and gave an embarrassed smile. "I know 'tis foolish of me, but at the time I thought perhaps that had been the 'whiz thunk' I'd heard."

Noting how solemn and stern her husband's face had become, Evelinde frowned. The man always looked serious, but this was different and was making her nervous. She decided a change of topic was in order and chose the first one to come to mind.

"Husband, do you not think torches should be set in the upper hall and lit during the day? It has no windows and is very dark."

Cullen shrugged, his voice distracted as he said, " 'Tis the way it has always been. Ye will get used to it."

Evelinde narrowed her eyes with displeasure, but before she could speak he was suddenly shifting her off of him and sliding from the bed.

"Where are you going?" she asked, sitting up to watch as he began to don his clothes.

" 'Tis the middle of the day. I've things to attend."

"But—" She glanced to the window, noting that the sun was hanging directly overhead. It was indeed midday. "What about our picnic in the clearing?"

Cullen hesitated, but then shook his head and continued to dress. " 'Twill have to wait for another day. I have wasted enough time today."

"Wasted?" Evelinde squawked, then scrambled off the bed and hurried after him as he headed for the door. "But I wished to speak with you about some things."

Pausing at the door, Cullen turned back, his gaze sliding over her, but hardly seeming to see that she was standing before him completely naked. His voice was impatient as he asked, "What did ye wish to speak about?"

Evelinde hesitated, at a loss now that she was on the spot, but when he shrugged and turned to the door, she blurted, "About the torches in the hall, and getting men to help in the castle with the heavier tasks, and what my duties are?"

"We've discussed the torches, they're no necessary. And why do ye keep insisting ye need men in the castle?"

Evelinde decided to let the issue of the torches go for now in favor of pursuing assistance in the keep, and said, "The women do all the work while the men play at swords, Cullen. Did they help with the heavier tasks, the women would not be so burdened."

"The men do not 'play' at swords," he said with affront. "They practice to stay in good form to defend the women and children of Donnachaidh."

"Aye, of course," she said soothingly. "But Donnachaidh has had peace for a long time, and it seems unfair to make the women work so hard when a little help from the men would make things so much easier. Surely you can spare a man or two once in a while to help them?"

Cullen made a sound of irritation and turned to open the door. "The women have managed well enough for decades now. I see no reason to change things. 'Tis how it has always been."


"And yer duty as wife is to obey me," he added. Pausing again, now that he had the door open, Cullen turned back to say, "Stay in the castle from now on."

He departed then, pulling the door closed behind him and leaving a stunned Evelinde staring at the wooden panel with disbelief. She wasn't at all pleased with how their "talk" had gone, but that last order had her absolutely flummoxed.

Turning away from the door, Evelinde wandered back to the bed and sat down, her shoulders slumped with dejection. It was amazing how quickly her marriage went from wonderful to horrible to wonderful and back again. What had happened? Moments ago she'd been lying on her husband's chest feeling satisfied and even blissful, and now she wanted to wring his bloody neck.

" 'Tis how it has always been," she muttered aloud with disgust. What kind of argument was that? And her duty was to obey? Ha! What exactly were his duties then? She seemed to recall words like "comfort" and "honor" and "cherish" being a part of their wedding vows. Evelinde didn't feel particularly comforted or honored, but especially she wasn't feeling cherished.

Sighing, she dropped back on the bed and stared at the cloth draped overhead. Truly, marriage was turning out to be a most frustrating business. At least it was with her husband. He seemed to see her as helpless and useless and—

That was it! Evelinde sat up abruptly. No doubt Cullen did see women that way. He'd been raised to think of them as the weaker sex needing defending. That being the case, it would be hard for him to see her as strong in her own right. She needed to show him that she was strong and capable and intelligent. Perhaps then he'd be more willing to listen to her ideas and thoughts.

The problem was how to do that, Evelinde thought, standing and moving to wash at the basin. She simply wasn't as physically strong as a man.

But she also had never been short of intelligence, Evelinde reminded herself encouragingly. With a little thought, surely she would come up with something.

In the meantime, she decided, if Cullen would not tell her what he wished her to do, she would decide for herself what her duties were… and the first task she set herself was to address the issue of getting men into the kitchens. Her husband might not be willing to set a couple men permanently to the task, but there were other ways to get them there, she thought.

Evelinde had noticed that the men tended to find excuses to go to the kitchens on the days that Biddy baked her pasties. Perhaps they could make them more often as a lure to get the men into the kitchens, and in exchange for a pasty, she and Biddy might get them to do a bit of the heavy lifting or some such thing. It could not hurt to try. As for the torches in the hall, if he would not order some set there, then she would bloody well do it herself. He might fuss about it at first, but would surely see the benefit when he could see his way clearly to their door without risking a stumble or fall. At least she hoped he would, Evelinde thought as she finished washing and quickly dressed.

While she was seeing to these things, she would consider how best to show him she was intelligent. Perhaps by solving the mystery of the accidents/murders of his family members, Evelinde thought grimly, aware that she might be discovering the source of her own latest "accidents" that way. This last "accident" in the paddock and Cullen's questions regarding the arrow in the woods made her think someone might be trying to make her husband a widower again, and she wasn't ready to rest in peace.

Aye, Evelinde thought as she headed for the door, solving the matter would surely prove to her husband that she wasn't the weak, defenseless creature he thought her.

Her determination to light up the hall gained some strength as Evelinde stepped out of their room, pulled the door shut, and found herself enclosed in darkness.

" 'Tis not strong or brave to walk around in darkness," she muttered irritably as she stepped carefully away from the door. " 'Tis just stupid."

Shaking her head, Evelinde moved toward the stairs but then paused as a rustling from somewhere behind made her glance around. Her first thought was that it was one of the maids coming from a task in one of the rooms, but the moment she stopped the sound did, too.

"Who's there?" she said, staring into the darkness.

Silence was her answer.

Evelinde peered into the gloom, straining to see. It was possible it was just a mouse who'd taken up residence in the hall or one of the empty rooms. There were five of them on this level. She'd toured them all during the miserable days before Mildrede and Mac had arrived. The three rooms along the hall opposite their bedchamber were smaller bedchambers, one of which was Biddy's. The room next to their own, however, was a large solar. It was empty at the moment, but Evelinde hoped to change that at some. point in the future. It was one of the other things she'd thought to speak to her husband about. Now she decided she'd simply take care of the matter herself. It would be one of the duties she set herself.

No further sound had reached her ears. It seemed it really had been a mouse or something, still her "accidents" had made her wary, and Evelinde was on the alert and moved much more slowly than usual as she approached the stairs. In the end, that probably saved her life when she stumbled over something on the floor. She was only a step from the stairs and had she been moving at her usual bustle, probably would have pitched headfirst down the steps. Although she still fell forward toward the stairs, her slower speed allowed her to cry out and reach for the railing as she did so.

A concerned shout from the great hall below answered her call, but Evelinde hardly noticed, she was grabbing wildly for the railing. Her hand slapped down on the wooden rail, and she clutched desperately at it. While it didn't completely stop her fall, it slowed her further. Evelinde's upper body swung toward the railing, her shoulder slamming into the sturdy wood as the rest of her body kept going. Her legs slid past her to the side, their weight dragging her down several steps so that a squeal sounded as her palm slid along the wood before she was able to tighten her hold again and bring herself to a complete halt.


Cullen was there almost the moment Evelinde came to a halt, and she suspected that his was the concerned shout she'd heard, but she was stunned and breathless from the scare and merely peered at him with wide eyes.

"Are ye hurt?" Cullen asked the question as he scooped her up in his arms and hurried down the stairs to the trestle table. The way she was jostled around in his arms as he went kept her from answering, however, and Evelinde merely held on and waited. Unfortunately, he took her silence as a yes. So did Mildrede, who rushed over as he set Evelinde on the table, the maid's face a picture of combined worry and fury.

"I'm fine," Evelinde gasped a little breathlessly, as Cullen straightened from setting her down, but no one heard her over Mildrede's furious voice.

" 'Tis that damned dark hall. 'Tis a menace! Why are there no torches up there?" Mildrede snapped as she hovered beside him.

Evelinde waited for the hated line, "Because 'tis how it's always been," to sound, but Cullen didn't speak to the question. He was busily running his hands over her body on top of her gown.

"I am fine," Evelinde repeated trying to sit up, only to find herself pushed flat again.

"Stay put till we're sure nothing's broken," Mildrede insisted, holding her shoulder down flat on the table. She then glanced to Cullen, and asked worriedly. "Is anything broken?"

"I doona think so," Cullen muttered as he finished his examination and straightened, his eyes searching out her face. "Are ye all right?"

"Aye—" she began, but Mildrede cut her off.

"Of course she is not all right!" the maid snapped. "She just took a tumble down those accursed stairs."

The maid urged Cullen out of the way to examine Evelinde for herself. While he'd concentrated on her limbs, looking for breaks, Mildrede moved her hands over her stomach and urged her to sit up so she could run them over her back as well.

"I am fine, Mildrede," she muttered, trying to wave her away.

The maid merely tightened her lips, and said, "You are not fine. You will be black-and-blue… again," Mildrede added heavily, glowering at Cullen, obviously blaming him for this latest accident.

"What's happened now?"

Evelinde glanced around at that exasperated question to see Fergus approaching the table. Tavis was not far behind.

"She fell down the stairs," Cullen answered in a growl that drew Evelinde's eyes to his face. He was scowling at her as if this were all her fault, she noted with irritation.

"Has she always been this clumsy?"

Evelinde's head shot back around at that question from Tavis, and she glared at the man despite the teasing voice he'd used. He merely grinned back, eyes sparkling with amusement.

"Nay!" Mildrede snapped, apparently no more amused than Evelinde was, "In fact, she rarely had accidents at all ere the day your lord arrived at d'Aumesbery. But, then, 'tis not the first accident that has happened around him."

Evelinde's eyes widened, but then she realized Biddy must have told Mildrede the tale of how Cullen's father, uncle, and first wife had died. Ere coming to the castle, all either of them had known was that he was supposed to have killed them, not that their deaths were the results of suspicious accidents. Her gaze slid to Cullen to see how he was taking the words, only to find his face expressionless as usual.

"Are ye suggesting our laird had something to do with this?" Fergus demanded, elbowing Tavis out of the way so that he could glare at the maid.

"Mildrede," Evelinde said in a warning tone as the woman opened her mouth to answer.

The servant hesitated, but held her tongue. Evelinde was just relaxing when Cullen suddenly scooped her off the table and moved toward the stairs.

"What are you doing?" she asked with a frown.

"I am taking you to our room to rest."

"I do not need to rest, Cullen. I am fine really. I do not think I even got hurt this time, I was able to save myself," she assured him quickly, ignoring the slight ache of her arm from that saving. It was little enough compared to what she could have suffered.

"I shall fetch some mead and mix a tonic," Mildrede announced, hurrying for the kitchen.

"Husband," Evelinde said impatiently. "I am fine. Really."

"You are not fine. You nearly broke your neck and will rest to allow your body to recover."

Evelinde opened her mouth to respond, but they'd reached the top of the stairs and instead she cautioned, "Be careful. I tripped over something on the floor just before I reached the stairs."

When Cullen paused to glance at her, she nodded.

" 'Tis what made me fall."

He met her gaze silently and for a moment Evelinde thought he didn't believe her, but then he turned to shout over his shoulder. "Bring me a torch."

Tavis appeared behind them shortly after that carrying a lit torch in hand. At a gesture from Cullen, he moved around them and stepped onto the landing.

"Wait," Cullen said, when Tavis started to lead the way to the bedchamber. "Move the torch over the landing before the stairs."

Evelinde saw an eyebrow rise on the man's forehead, but he lowered the torch, lighting up the floor before them. Evelinde frowned on seeing that there was nothing there to see. The way was clear.

"But I tripped over something," she muttered, and twisted in Cullen's arms, trying to look at the top few stairs. It was possible she'd sent whatever she'd tripped on skittering down the stairs ahead of her as she stumbled over it.

"Settle yerself," Cullen ordered, and nodded to Tavis to continue forward.

"But I really did trip over something," she insisted.

"Probably yer own feet," Tavis teased as he led the way up the hall.

Evelinde's alarmed gaze slid between the fair-haired man and her husband. Cullen's face was its usual unreadable self, even his eyes were giving nothing away, and she feared he agreed with Tavis's teasing and thought she'd just tripped over her own feet. But she really had tripped over something and couldn't for the life of her sort out where that something had disappeared to.

It must have rolled down the steps, Evelinde thought with frustration.

"Thank ye," Cullen rumbled, and Evelinde glanced around to find that they'd reached their bedchamber. Tavis had opened the door and now stood aside for Cullen to enter.

Her husband's cousin began to close the door behind them once they'd passed him, but before he could, Cullen ordered, "I want torches in the hall from now on."

Tavis paused, eyebrows rising slightly "We've never had torches in the hall here before."

"We will now," Cullen said firmly. "And I want them lit each morning and kept lit until we are abed. Tell Fergus, and make sure he arranges it."

The man's eyes slid to Evelinde, a curious expression on his face, but he nodded, then pulled the door closed.

"Thank you," Evelinde said quietly as he set her on the bed. It seemed her near fall had done what her own requests had not. There would be light in the hall.

Cullen's answer was a grunt as he turned away and headed for the door.

Evelinde heaved a sigh as the door closed behind him, sure he didn't believe she'd tripped over anything but her own feet. She supposed she couldn't blame him. There had been nothing that he could see for her to trip over. Making a face, Evelinde slid her feet off the bed. She was perfectly fine. Her arm muscles were a little tender, but that would pass quickly, and she had no intention of "resting." She had a plan of action she wished to set in motion and now, more than ever, was determined to follow it.

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