Written in 67 minutes. Sorry I went a bit over and got interrupted in the middle, too. But I’m pretty happy with this. No time for typos or spellcheck.
Elizabeth’s eyes fluttered open the next morning when the sunlight slid through the opening in her tent. As her mind became alert, she also realized that everything hurt. She squeezed her eyes closed again, then slowly, pushed herself to a seated position, inhaling sharply as the muscles in her lower back and shoulders protested. Then she twisted, sliding her legs from the cot she slept in to the ground.
She sucked in another breath, almost on a sob as she realized she couldn’t quite bring herself to stand up. Every single piece of her body was frozen. She didn’t know what would happen if she told Jason she wasn’t sure she could stand much less travel on the horse again, and she expected to ride all the way to Braegarie? Would his patience with her disappear? Would he leave her here?
No. She rubbed her wrist. No. She couldn’t read her new husband very well unless she was touching him, and even then it was difficult to get a sense of him. But she’d felt genuine worry and concern. Some suspicion, some worry that she was keeping secrets, but she’d known that already.
His voice from outside the tent jarred her and she looked towards the entrance. “I—I’m awake,” she managed. “I’ll be out in a moment—” Elizabeth took a deep breath, then forced herself to stand, the muscles in her thighs protesting from the pressure, but she stood, wobbling slightly.
Now to take a step.
She stared blankly at the matted grass and dirt beneath her feet, her brain sending signals to move, but her body simply refused.
“Elizabeth?” Jason said again. “Are you all right?”
“I—” She bit her lip. “No,” Elizabeth confessed in a small voice. “I’m not. I’m—” She stopped as the flap to the tent swept aside and Jason strode in, ducking his head slightly. She smiled at him tightly. “I stood up. And that was all I could do.”
Jason nodded, his mouth tightening. “I’m sorry. We should have set an easier pace yesterday. We—we always camp here when we return from the town,” he said. “How did you travel from Annan?”
“Oh. My father hired a cart for my sister and I.” Elizabeth stared at her hands. “We were never instructed in riding, and—” A tear slid down her cheek. How useless she was. How little she knew about what would be expected of her. A Highland wife who couldn’t ride? Or care for herself?
She glanced at Jason, who was squinting at her, his brows furrowed in thought, as if trying to process how to go forward from here. Would he just take her back to the regent, tell him she was defective? It wasn’t too late to set aside the vows — she knew it was done often, particularly in the Highlands.
Expecting Jason to declare this a disaster, she was surprised instead when he came forward and lifted her, sliding one arm under her knees and the other under her shoulders. She gasped slightly, wrapping her own arms around his neck to brace herself.
“You’ll ride with me today,” Jason told her. “And we will stop in Stirling for the night. You’ll be able to rest there.”
“I—” She blinked at the sun as he walked out of the tent and set her down on the little stool by the remains of the fire. He jerked his chin at Johnny who scowled and started to pack up. “I could have—”
“Don’t worry about him,” Jason said. He pushed something into her hands, an oatcake. “Eat. You need your strength.”
She chewed her bottom lip, contemplating the grubby little oat cake, but when she raised her eyes to say something, her husband had already walked away, joining Johnny and Francis in packing up the campsite.
He’d meant what he’d told Elizabeth that morning by the loch—he should have stopped earlier that night. There had been other villages between Edinburgh and Linlithglow where he could have taken rooms, eased her into the brutal pace that they’d need in the hills later in the trip.
Instead, he’d let his irritation at Johnny and Francis’s suspicions, her refusal to trust him with the truth, and his own worry about what trouble he was bringing home to his clan — he’d let all of that cloud his vision, and he’d treated his new wife worse than he had the day of their wedding—which he hadn’t thought would be possible.
After they’d packed the tent, Jason took Elizabeth to the loch so that she could wash, and then carried to her horse where he set her in front of him—having her pressed against him all day would be his punishment, he decided.
But the universe had devised an even harsher penalty for his actions. When they reached Stirling, Jason was chagrined to learn that there was a festival in town which meant many had flocked in from the surrounding countryside and many of the inns were full.
“We’ll camp outside of town,” Johnny said when Francis had trudged out of the last place with a shake of his head. Johnny glanced at Elizabeth, pale and worn, leaning back against Jason, her eyes closed.
“They have one room,” Francis said before Jason could consider Johnny’s suggestion. He nodded at Elizabeth. “The lass needs to sleep, and another night on the cot won’t do her any good. I told them you’ll take the room, Jason. Johnny and I will make do and we’ll see you in the morning.”
Jason hesitated. They should keep trying. There were at least two or three more inns, one of which had to have at least two rooms. He’d never leave Elizabeth alone in one of these places, but—
“We can’t leave them alone,” Johnny bit out. He swept his eyes over Elizabeth again, but she was awake now, blinking at them blearily. Jason hoped Elizabeth thought Johnny was worried for their safety, but he knew what the other man was thinking. He didn’t trust Jason around her without Johnny to remind him that she hadn’t earned their trust yet.
His jaw clenched. He wasn’t going to make Elizabeth suffer another night because she hadn’t earned Johnny’s respect. It wasn’t him that she needed to satisfy. He looked at Francis. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Francis—” Johnny began but the blond sent his friend a sharp look. “Fine,” he muttered.
“We’ll take your horses to the livery,” Francis told Jason as he held the stallion’s reins. Jason dismounted and reached for Elizabeth. He’d stopped several times that day so that she could walk off the worst of her cramps and rest her muscles so she was able to stand on her own while he grabbed what they’d need for the night.
He put a hand at her elbow and guided her towards the low doorway of the inn. A few minutes later, the innkeeper had taken them to their room and Jason had arranged for supper and a hot bath to be brough up. Elizabeth had sighed, a soft sound that sounded almost happy.
“Thank you,” she said, twisting her fingers together. “It wasn’t necessary, but—”
“You’ll feel better when you’ve soaked,” he muttered, looking away from her, not wanting to think about her bathing. He did not need that image in his mind before they shared a room together for the entire night.
They ate first—a hot stew that tasted much better than the oat cakest they’d had for breakfast and around noon. Elizabeth’s color had already returned by the time the bath was brought in, two serving women bringing steaming pitchers with which to fill it.
“I’ll—” Jason got to his feet hastily. “I’ll go downstairs,” he muttered, then fled like a coward as Elizabeth stared at him then turned her flushed cheeks to the serving women, feeling a bit embarassed how quickly he’d left the room to avoid being near her while she bathed.
She tried very hard not to linger in the bath, but it had been several day since she’d been able to wash properly, and Jason had been right—the hot water really did make her feel so much better. She wasn’t sure how she’d make it all the way to his home since she knew it wasn’t possible to take rooms every night.
But he’d done this for her this once, and Elizabeth decided to see that as a good sign.
By the time Jason returned, she had finished her bath and was drying her hair by the fire. He stepped aside so that the maids could take the tub to another guest, then closed the door, clearing his throat. “Your father.”
Elizabeth stared at the flames, her comb clutched in her fingers. “Yes?”
“Even for a Lowlander,” Jason said slowly, “it seems strange that neither of his daughters were not taught to ride.” He sat at the table where they’d eaten their supper, watching her. “I assume your brother was?”
“Of course.” Elizabeth sighed and rose to her feet. She sat on the edge of the bed, running her fingers across the teeth of her comb. “My father does not think women should do many things,” she said after a long moment. “And riding was one of them. My mother—” She closed her eyes. “Her horse threw her.”
Jason frowned. “That could have happened to anyone—”
“Her mare was spooked by something,” Elizabeth said with a shake of her head. “And my mother couldn’t stop her—couldn’t jump to safety. Her skirt was tangled in the sidesaddle. My father…is not always rational.” She paused. “He never expected me to marry,” she admitted which was not quite the truth. He’d never wanted her to find a husband. Had never wanted her to leave Annan and risk their secret—her secret—to be known. “I fear that there are many things you would expect your wife to be capable of doing that I cannot.”
She looked up to find him staring her with a calm expression as if she hadn’t admitted what a failure she was—or would be. “I should have said something sooner—”
“Why?” Jason asked. He sat next to her on the bed, keeping at least a foot between them. “What reason could he have?”
“I—” Elizabeth wrinkled her nose, looked down at her hands. She couldn’t tell him the truth, but— “My father has never cared for me,” she said instead. “From my earliest memories. He’s always favored Sarah, but—he never intended her to marry either. Steven—he’s different,” she said softly. “He’s the heir. But neither Sarah nor I—after our mother died—received any instruction that would make us particularly fit for being a wife.” She looked at him. “He changed his mind about Sarah when we were invited to the court. He thought she might make a brilliant match.”
“But not you.”
“Not me,” Elizabeth confirmed. She thought that he would press on the matter, and she worried how she would deflect the questions—she didn’t want to lie to him, but she couldn’t imagine telling him the truth. That her father had feared that women carried the curse of her vision, and that Sarah might shame him and have a daughter just like Elizabeth. That his family would be dishonored and disgraced.
“What did your brother mean about your mother?” Jason asked, surprising her by the change in conversation. “That you should remember what she taught you?”
“I—” Her eyes widened and she looked straight ahead, at the dingy walls of the room. Could she tell him? Could she open up about this? Would he trust her if she showed a little of herself? She looked at him, met his eyes. “She taught me to be quiet,” Elizabeth admitted in a soft voice. “Not to speak. To be invisible.”
“To be—” Jason frowned, shook his head. “Why? Why would she teach such a lesson to a child—” The scowl deepened. “Why would your brother remind you of it.”
“Oh. Well—” Elizabeth’s stomach pitched strangely and she dipped her gaze down at his hands. They were so large. Larger than her fathers. He wore no ring that would cut her, but she suspected if Jason hit her with a closed fist, she might not wake up again. “Quiet children are safe,” she said finally. She touched the side of her cheek, absently where the cut her father had given her had only begun to scab over, the bruise fading into sickening streaks of yellow and green.
“Steven’s just worried,” Elizabeth said in a rush. “He—he doesn’t know you, and he can’t protect me. He tries, but sometimes my father—” She shrugged a shoulder. “He knows we might not see each other again, and he worries for me.”
“You don’t need to be quiet or invisible,” Jason told her. She glanced up to find him closer to her, his eyes intent on hers. “You will be safe with me.”
“Will I?” she asked, her voice scarcely above a whisper. “You don’t trust me. I know your men don’t trust me.”
“Whatever those secrets are,” Jason responded, his voice hushed but fervent—his hand reached out to cup her cheek. A shiver slid through her body as the sense of comfort, of security—of being safe sank into her body. He wasn’t lying to her. “Whatever they are,” he repeated, “I promise you that I will never hurt you.”
His thumb brushed away a tear as it escaped her lashes. Then he leaned forward and gently brushed his lips against hers. Startled, Elizabeth parted her mouth, and he deepend the caress. She closed her eyes and sank into him—he was open to her for the first time—the guards she’d been fighting for days disappeared—and she reached her hand up to touch his jaw, then slid into his hair, the dark blonde strands falling just below his chin.
And just as she believed she was truly safe, that this time it would be different—she had a flash. A flash of Johnny and Francis standing in front of him, with the horses. At the inn in Edinburgh.
And I can’t think of a better spy than a slip of a woman that screams victim.
Elizabeth couldn’t sense who had said the harsh words, but she could feel the venom, the hatred, the distrust down to her bones—she jerked away from him, jumping off the bed.
Shaking slightly, confused and bewildered—how could he be so true in one moment and feel so right—when she knew—she knew he didn’t trust her. And if he hadn’t said it, one of his own men thought she was a spy.
“You think if you are kind to me and promise me things,” she said, her voice shaking, “that I will break my word? Do you think that I am so weak? So soft? I made a vow—”
“You made vows to me,” Jason said tightly. “Are they not more important?” He rose to his feet, his face tightening with irritation. “Elizabeth—”
“I’d like to go to bed,” she said, trembling. “I—I am very tired. And I would like try riding again tomorrow.”
Jason pressed his lips together, then nodded. “Fine. Keep your secrets.” He jerked a pallet out of one of the bags he’d brought up and laid it on the floor. He laid down, his back to her.
She closed her eyes, wrapped her arms around herself, and reminded herself that her mother had been right. Quiet. Invisible. It was the only way to protect herself.