Maud pushed open the door, grateful that it hung on quiet hinges – although even these seemed to shriek in the silence.
But the room was empty in the moonlight. Her children’s toys lay where they had left them. No one had been here since they had gone to bed. Maud flushed with humiliation and anger – at herself and at that impudent Scot.
She was mad. She didn’t know why she had come. She had certainly not had that intention when she had lain down to sleep in Caedwulf’s room. But she hadn’t been able to sleep – and so she lay awake wondering whether he had meant what he said.
It had to have been the idea that he might be waiting for her in this room that drove her mad. The time seemed to pass even more slowly for her than it would be passing for him.
And so finally she had thrown off the blanket and crept down the hall. She heard Sigefrith snoring as she passed his room – there was something she didn’t miss – but down at this end of the castle she heard only the rushing of the wind over the wooden roof.
She stood in the doorway, her fingers resting lightly on the handle.
He hadn’t come. He had lied. Worse than that – he had meant to mock her. She wondered how he could bear to make a fool of her without allowing himself to witness it. Perhaps he felt that the important thing was that she knew herself to have been mocked, even if he would never know it. And he never would!
Her trembling hand slipped from the handle, and Maud took a step into the empty room.
Oh, she would make a fool of him! He had forgotten she had a husband! She would just arrange for Sigefrith to overhear some of the things he had been saying, and–
The door swung shut with a faint clink.
“Here we are,” he said softly. Maud spun around – he had been hiding behind the open door all this time!
She could do no more than gasp before he caught her and, pinning her arms against her sides, bent her backwards and kissed her.
Her senses cried out in alarm at the unfamiliarity of him. This was not the mouth she knew – not the lips, not the tongue, not the beard, not the nose that was pressing into her cheek, not the breath, not the silky hair that fell over their faces. He kissed her as if he would devour her. He kissed her whether she would be kissed or no, for he was stronger than her, even in all her fright.
When he let go of her arms, she tried to scramble away, but he only caught her by the shoulders and pushed her against the wall and kissed her again.
He was growling in his throat like a wolf when he breathed – or perhaps he was speaking to her in Gaelic, it could sound much the same to her. She was growing dizzy; no matter which way she turned her head, his mouth followed her own.
Finally she let out a weak wail.
He took a step back, still holding her against the wall.
“Go on with it,” he whispered harshly. “If you want to scream, scream. Else you stay quiet.”
She opened her mouth, but she could not make a sound. She trembled so that she felt she might be sick.
He relaxed his hold on her then but stood waiting, his hands ready. Maud only slumped against the wall.
“Do you have a candle?” he asked, stepping back when he saw she wouldn’t move.
“Behind you, on the table,” she whispered, as she discovered she had no voice.
He crossed the room and found the candle and flint, but after he had lit the wick he stood a long while with his back to her.
Was he waiting for her? Did he expect her to come to him? She could not move – her legs would never carry her so far.
But then he turned, and padded gracefully back to her. He put his arms around her again, but gently this time, and told her softly, “I only wanted to look at you.”
Maud could only give him a wavering smile in reply, but it seemed to satisfy him – for he kissed her again, but slowly now, and she let herself be kissed. And it wasn’t alarming – only different. It was like learning to kiss all over again: everything was new.
But finally he let go of her and ran one hand down her side and on down her leg. When he reached her knee he pinched the fabric of her gown between his fingers and lifted the hem from the floor. “Let’s take this off,” he suggested.
“No!” she gasped. She hadn’t thought of this!
“I only want to look at you,” he coaxed. His face was shadowed, but she could hear the smile in his voice. He was contemptible!
Once he had seen that she wouldn’t, he straightened and walked away from her. “I misunderstood,” he said quietly. And then he stood still, staring at the wall.
Maud waited. She waited what seemed an eternity, and he never moved. Would he stand there all night? They would see who had the most patience! Did he think a queen would come to him?
But she grew restless as she waited. Her hands began to shake again. Did he want her to leave? Then why didn’t he say so?
Finally she could bear it no longer. She would find out what he wanted. Maud took a hesitant step forward, leaving the stability of the wall behind.
He must have heard her gown rustle, but he never moved. Did he expect her to cross the whole space between them before acknowledging her presence? Did he expect her to walk in front of him, even?
She shuffled forward another step, and another. She was standing behind him, close enough to touch him if she dared. He didn’t move – it was maddening! He would look at her!
“May I put out the candle first?” she whispered, almost hoping he couldn’t hear.
“Aye,” he replied without looking around.
She moved more easily to the candle – away from him – and blew it out. Then, with trembling hands, she began to untie the ribbons.
“Here,” he said. “Before me.”
She looked up – he had not yet moved. He stood like a sentry guarding the room against a possible attack by the north wall.
She walked slowly back across the floor to stand between him and the treacherous wall, her hands still fumbling at the ribbons. He would look at her, yes – because she had put herself before his eyes. There was little enough light, but his eyes were keen. She could hide her face behind her hair, but there was not enough left to hide the rest of her.
He took her wrist in his hand – a hand that trembled too, she thought – but she would not look into his face.
But he pulled her against him so she would not have to.
Without the rich cloth of her gown between them she could feel that he was all covered in straps and buckles and odd medallions. “Your buckles are cutting me,” she complained.
“I should undress,” he chuckled.
Maud felt sick again. This was going too far. But every time she began to move or turn away, he would reach out and pull her back into place before him, and so she could only stand and look steadily at the floor, where a pile of plaid was growing at his feet.
“Next time I come dressed for battle and no the parade,” he laughed softly. “You were wiser than I.”
Next time! Maud whimpered and tried to move past him, but he caught her by the arms and held her in place until she stood quietly again. And then he continued undressing.
Well, a Scot was only a man, after all, under the kilts.
“You expected to see a wolf’s pelt?” he whispered, reading her thoughts.
She looked away in embarrassment. “I wasn’t expecting any of this,” she said miserably.
“A fine surprise, then,” he murmured, taking her in his arms again.
He tried to kiss her, but she turned her face away. “Wait – wait,” she whispered. “I don’t know what – ”
“No more talk,” he interrupted. “Enough of your barbarian tongue. I shall teach you the Gaelic you need to know.”
Defeated, she let herself be kissed. It was sweet to be wanted by a man who wouldn’t hear nay. Malcolm would have stormed into Caedwulf’s room on that first night and carried her back to bed again. Malcolm wouldn’t leave her for half a year, and then come home only to begin plotting another journey before he had even greeted his wife. Oh, she should have had a very different life, had she been allowed to choose her husband. And a very different husband.
He had a way of bending her over until she lost her balance and could only hang onto his neck and trust he wouldn’t drop her. But suddenly she felt that they were truly falling and she yelped – but he was only laying her down on the chest that was pushed against the wall.
“No, no, no – not this!” she whispered frantically, protesting for the last time.
“Am I hurting you?”
“No, but – ”
“Whisht!” he said, and closed her mouth with a kiss.