Annis refilled her father’s cup and set the bottle down. He ignored her. Six months after her great disgrace he barely acknowledged her existence. She didn’t hold it against him. Her humiliation had been entirely her own doing.
Not quite her own.
Annis’ cheeks flushed as a face flashed through her mind. She was so consumed with memories that the hammering on the door nearly passed her by. Her father finally met her eyes, and even by the dim rushlight she saw loathing.
“Go answer it.”
It was after dusk and no visitor was expected. Annis took the poker she kept by the hearth and opened the door a crack. Two men stood on the threshold.
“We seek shelter for the night.”
“There’s a village before the hill.” Annis cocked her head along the road.
Brows knotted together over a pair of vibrant blue eyes. If the stranger seemed surprised that Annis could look him eye to eye, he didn’t show it.
“I willnae make it that far. My horse lost a shoe. Is there a blacksmith in the next village?”
Annis opened the door a little wider and gestured towards her father.
“This is the blacksmith’s home. We’re halfway between two villages and serve both. Ye’d best stay the night and he’ll shoe your horse in the morning.”
“You’re his wife?”
A girl of eighteen married to a widower of fifty! Annis winced, thinking she’d be lucky to catch even that for a husband now.
“The stable is off to the left. I’ll leave the door ajar.”
While the men stabled their horses, Annis cut bread and ladled broth into bowls. She was returning from the kitchen with a heavy tray when they entered. They lowered their great plaids from over their shoulders. Annis didn’t recognise which clan the warm brown brats indicated, but hospitality was never denied to anyone.
She gestured to the table.
“I’ve brought ye some broth and bread.”
“And wine?” The second man spoke and received a nudge in the ribs from his companion.
“Forgive Angus, he’s got nae manners.” The speaker looked severely at Angus, then strode towards Annis. “That looks heavy, let me help.”
“I can manage.”
Annis was tall but slight. Her slenderness concealed the strength that came from pumping bellows, chopping wood and heaving a drunken father to his bed. Even so, she was touched and allowed the stranger to take the tray from her hands. The sleeves of his leine were rolled to the elbow, and she couldn’t help notice how his forearms were well toned and covered with soft hairs that she wanted to stroke her fingers along. She bunched her fists to curb the urge and stammered her thanks.
“I’m Hamish Lochmore. This is my cousin, Angus.”
“You’re a fairer sight than I expected to see tonight, Annis.” Hamish’s eyes crinkled as he peered at her in the gloom. The light was too dim to see her properly, so his compliment had all the substance of mist. Even so, Annis’ stomach flipped. As she passed him the wine jug, Hamish clasped his hand over hers.
“Will ye join us?” he asked, smiling.
At his touch, flames danced over Annis’ skin and long-dormant desires woke the blood in her veins. Disconcerted at how Hamish could invoke such wanton thoughts so easily, she pulled her hand away.
“I have work,” she said, and retreated to a dark corner with her spindle.
Staying in the dark out of Hamish’s way seemed the most prudent way to pass the evening.
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