Written in 55 minutes. Did a basic spell check but did not reread for typos.
Jason had hoped to make it to Linlithgow before the sun had started to dip in the horizon so that they could set up camp before complete darkness descended. He hadn’t planned to make any changes in their usual route home from Edinburgh — he and his men knew the terrain between the capital and Braegarie like the back of their hand and were able of making the trip in a week.
With the addition of delicate woman from the Lowlands who could barely seat a horse, Jason had steeled himself for the week’s trip to take more than double that. Elizabeth would never manage to seat a horse from sun rise to sun set, even if he set her before him and did the work.
By the time they reached loch, the waters were nearly black and the moon was high in the sky. Jason glanced over at his new wife, and even in the moonlight, he could see the way her shoulders were trembling with fatigue. The terrain had been relatively flat so far — if she was flagging after the easiest leg of the trip—
He swung down from his horse and caught Elizabeth’s mare by the bridle. The brunette blinked blearily at him. “We’re stopping?” she asked, her voice low and rusty from disuse.
“Aye,” he confirmed, furrowing his brow as she winced, rubbing her hands. “Can you dismount?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said, then made a face as she attempted to move her leg from the pommel of her side saddle. With a bite of her lip, she sighed. “I might need a little help,” she admitted finally.
“Set up camp,” he told Johnny and Francis, who had tied their horses to a near branch and were coming over to take the other horses. “I’ll take care of the horses. I want the tent up first.”
“Tent?” Elizabeth repeated.
“Aye,” Johnny said caustically, as he yanked the material in question from the pack horse. “Only the best for milady—”
“Johnny,” Jason said quietly. He met the other man’s stare head on, but Johnny’s eyes were shadowed in the darkness. “No.”
Francis quietly came up behind Johnny and removed the other supplies they needed to make camp. “I’ll get a fire going,” he said.
When Jason was satisfied that both of his men were occupied, he returned his attention to Elizabeth. He started her when he swung up behind her, mounting the horse. “What—” she began.
“It’ll be easier,” he said, reaching around her to gently wrap a hand around her calf and lift it over the pommel. Elizabeth hissed as her leg moved for the first time in hours. Her body was trembling against his, and Jason felt a now familiar shame spreading through his body. She’d told him she had little experience riding, and he’d pushed her too far, too fast on the first day.
He’d be lucky if she could even walk in the morning.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice tight with pain. “I didn’t—I said I would tell you if I was tired, but I didn’t—until we stopped and I tried—”
“Your muscles locked in this position,” he said, keeping his arms around her, steadying her. He was afraid that in her exhaustion, she might tumble right from the back of the mare. “And your mind adjusted. ‘Tis my fault for not stopping for lunch and letting you walk around.”
“I don’t want to delay your return home,” Elizabeth said fretfully. “I can do this—”
“We’ll see.” He took her hands in his and set them on the pommel. “I’m going to get down now. Hold on, and I’ll have you on the ground before you know it.”
Elizabeth did as he asked, and when Jason reached up to pull her down to the soft earth, she nearly stumbled and fell against him, her legs protesting the movement. “It—” She squeezed her eyes closed, pressing her forehead against his chest. He felt tears soak into his shirt. “It hurts,” she admitted.
“You need to walk,” he advised. He put an arm around her shoulders. “Or it will only feel worse.” Her arm snaked around his waist as they inched closer to the clearing where Francis had lift the fire and Johnny was cursing with the unfamiliar tent.
It was a small pavilion tent, patterned after what aristocrats brought to fairs and on their own sojourns. None of them had ever traveled more than a night with a woman, much less a laird’s wife, and Jason knew that Johnny was going to sulk for the entire journey.
“Is that for me?” Elizabeth said, staring at the white linen as Francis shook his head and joined the other man. He shoved Johnny aside, then patiently assembled the wooden frame work before attempting to stretch the linen over it.
“I thought it would be comfortable than a pallet on the ground,” Jason said. He frowned at her. “Did you not have one on the journey to Edinburgh?”
“Oh.” She dipped her head. “I suppose I did, I just—” She looked at him, her eyes little more than shadows in the flames. “I didn’t think of it as mine. I shared it with Sarah but—” She shook her head. “It wasn’t necessary, but thank you.” This she directed at the men. “For going out of your way. Please don’t think I need special treatment.”
“Says the lass who can barely move,” Johnny grunted, but some of his hostility had faded. “It’s fine,” he muttered. “You’re—” He wiggled his hands. “Small. Soft. You’d never sleep on the ground.”
“Don’t argue,” Jason muttered. “This is as nice as he gets.” He jerked his head. “Let’s walk more to get your body loosened.” And if he let himself enjoy the way she felt, snuggled next to him, fitting perfectly into the crook of his shoulder — well that was his own personal secret.
Francis managed dinner while Johnny took care of the horses. By the time Jason was satisfied that she’d walked off the worse of her cramps, Elizabeth was convinced she’d crumble from exhaustion. She really hadn’t meant to make things more difficult for her new husband and his men—had been trying so hard to convince them she could hold her own —
But Jason was right — not moving for so long had tricked her brain into thinking she was fine. When he set her down on the small wooden stool that had also magically appeared from the pack horse, Elizabeth only felt marginally better than she had when he’d pulled her off the horse.
He’d been surprisingly kind in assisting her—she might even go so far as describing his demeanor as sweet if she had any way to determine what that might actually look like. She nearly preferred the open hostility of the suspicious dark-haired warrior—she was more familiar with aggressive behavior.
No one had ever put her needs and comfort first, and Elizabeth wasn’t really sure what to say or how to handle it. Could it be possible that she would really be able to start a new life in her new home? Could her new husband come to value and trust her?
She glanced at him as he sat on the ground, reaching for the jug of whiskey that had been hanging on the horse. He took a long pull, then glanced at her. “You should eat before you sleep.”
“Oh—” Elizabeth was about to protest that she wasn’t very hungry. The meat and cheese Francis had tossed at her on horseback at mid day had been twice as much as she was used to, and she’d saved a portion of it to eat later. But Johnny didn’t wait for her answer, just shoved a bowl of some sort of mashed something at her with a badly carved spoon.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said. She gingerly pushed the spoon around the mash, then touched it to her lips, trying very hard not to recoil. It was dreadful and tasted not much better than dirt. But it was food, and she wanted them to trust her. To like her, if such a thing was even possible.
Johnny narrowed his eyes at her, sitting across the fire from her. “Not fancy enough for you?”
“It’s fine,” Elizabeth said hastily. She spooned up another bite and forced herself to eat it. “Thank you,” she repeated.
Johnny grunted, and looked away from Jason’s glare. Francis quietly ate his own meal. Elizabeth finished her food, but before she say anything, Johnny yanked the bowl from her hand. “You should go to sleep,” he told her.
Elizabeth rose to her feet, and Jason swiftly stood as well, throwing Johnny another scowl. “I’m fine,” she told Jason. “I’m quite tired, and I want to be ready to leave in the morning when it’s time. Thank you for…for taking care of me,” she told all three of them. I will see you in the morning.”
Jason took her arm, and helped her over the uneven terrain, pulling back the flap of the tent. “If you need anything—”
“Good night,” Elizabeth said to him. She managed a smile. “I promise. I’ll do better tomorrow.” She ducked inside the tent, and Jason let the flap close.
He closed his eyes for a moment, then turned back to his men. “The horses. Now,” he snapped in a low voice, wanting to be out of earshot of his new wife.
“I know that you don’t trust her,” Jason began, but Johnny shook his head.
“You are letting that woman trick you with her sweet smiles and fluttering eyes,” he snapped, keeping his voice low. “She’s not nearly as helpless as she pretends to be—”
“Didn’t see her acting helpless much,” Francis said idly, and Johnny turned to look at him, dumbfounded. “Put her on a strange horse. Clear she’s barely able to sit one, and then we dragged her along for nearly ten hours at a brisk pace. No stopping for breaks or meals.” He shrugged. “She can fake not expecting fancy food or sleeping arrangements, but not the riding.”
Johnny scowled. “Don’t tell me—”
“I don’t trust her either,” Francis said, patiently. “She won’t tell you why the regent wanted you to marry her, and she knows what service she was supposed to have done,” he added to Jason. “And her brother came to see her off. Made sure to see her off. She’s keeping secrets.”
“I know that,” Jason bit out. “But she’s still—” He glanced at the tent, isolated and lonely in the middle of the clearing. A pavilion tent alone was a strange sight. He was used to seeing them in larger numbers. “We still exchanged vows in the church,” he muttered. “She’s still my wife.”
Johnny’s scowl deepened. “And you’re my laird, which means I’d lay my life down for her if you ask it. But that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it—”
“She could also just be an unwilling part of this,” Jason retorted. “And making her mistrust any of this doesn’t do anything to get her to tell me what she knows. Francis is right—she could have been pretending everything else, but she didn’t complain even once today. She pushed herself because she wanted to prove herself to me. And she’s done that. I don’t think she holds any secrets that put my life in danger. For now, that’s enough for me.”
“You’re a fool,” Johnny told him caustically. “Taken in by pretty eyes and soft skin—”
Francis stepped between the two of them as Jason nearly growled. “Jason is right,” he told the other man. “Like it or not, she’s married to our laird. She’s his lady. She deserves the same respect you manage to give his aunt. You don’t like her either—”
“Aye, well, Tracy would flay me if—” Johnny muttered, then looked away. “All right. I’ll try harder,” he admitted.
“We’re changing the route home,” Jason said, deciding that he might as well get it over with. “We can make Stirling tomorrow, and Perth the day after—”
“That’s nearly a third of what we’d do in one day! And we never stay in towns—”
“We’re setting a slower pace now and let Elizabeth get used to sitting a horse. Once we leave Perth, there’s barely any civilization,” Jason reminded him. “I won’t have her falling ill and—” He broke off. “There’s no hurry to get home. It’s not worth it to me to work her to the bone.” And he was worried that a lifetime of living with a man like Baron Webber would cause Elizabeth to hold back any complaints about illness or her true condition. “You’re welcome to ride ahead. I can bring Elizabeth home on my own.”
Johnny hissed and dragged a hand through his hair. “No,” he said in a low voice. “You’re right. The girl could barely walk when you pulled her off the mare. She didn’t fake that. And one night on the pallet in a tent won’t fix it. Better to lose the time in a town than in the hills where we can’t easily resupply.”
He fixed his eyes on Jason’s. “Don’t forget that all of this could be a plot against you. It’s taken you less than two days to let down your guard—”
“And it could also be nothing more than we were told,” Jason said, slicing his hand in the air between. “Which means that she is an innocent young woman being dragged into the Highlands with no riding experience and three men she barely knows. She’s trusting us not to kill her in her sleep and pretend none of this ever happened. The very least I can do is make the journey as comfortable as I can.”
Johnny threw up his hands and stalked away. Jason looked at Francis. “You agree with him.”
“I think there are secrets that you don’t know,” Francis said, after a measured silence. “But I also think she might not know them either. And there’s no point in terrorizing the lass if she’s just a pawn. She’s not any trouble to me, Jason, and remember that Johnny hates everyone. He’ll respect her because you ordered it, but he won’t do more than that.”
Jason just shook his head and walked away from Francis, irritated with both of his men. He trusted them more than his own family, and they were both suspicious of his new wife, even if Francis was being quieter about it. Jason couldn’t quite bring himself to share those worries. Not after spending time with her, seeing her family —
But was Johnny right? Was he being played for a fool?