“From London?” the blacksmith inquired with obvious enjoyment, beaming at Evie. “Why have ye come tae Gretna, lass? Have yer parents nae gi’en ye leave tae wed?”
Evie smiled back at him wanly. “I’m afraid it’s not qu-quite that simple, sir.”
“‘Tis seldom simple,” MacPhee agreed, nodding sagely. “But I maun warn ye, lass…if ye wad fain to marry rashly…the Scottish marriage vow is an irrevocable bond that ne’er can be broken. Be certain that yer love is true, and then—”
Interrupting what promised to be a long spate of fatherly advice, St. Vincent said in a clipped voice, “It’s not a love match. It’s a marriage of convenience, and there’s not enough warmth between us to light a birthday candle. Get on with it, if you please. Neither of us has had a proper sleep in two days.”
Silence fell over the scene, with MacPhee and his two daughters appearing shocked by the brusque remarks. Then the blacksmith’s heavy brows lowered over his eyes in a scowl. “I don’t like ye,” he announced.
St. Vincent regarded him with exasperation. “Neither does my bride-to-be. But since that’s not going to stop her from marrying me, it shouldn’t stop you either. Go on.”
MacPhee turned a now-pitying gaze on Evie. “The lass has nae flowers,” he exclaimed, now determined to lend a romantic atmosphere to the proceedings. “Florag, run tae fetch sae white heather.”
“She doesn’t need flowers,” St. Vincent snapped, but the girl scampered away nonetheless.
“‘Tis an auld Scottish custom for a bride tae carry white heather,” MacPhee explained to Evie. “Shall I tell ye why?”
Evie nodded and fought to suppress a helpless titter of amusement. In spite of her fatigue—or perhaps because of it—she was beginning to take a perverse enjoyment in the sight of St. Vincent struggling to control his annoyance. At the moment, the unshaven, ill-tempered man who stood beside her bore no resemblance to the smug aristocrat who had attended Lord Westcliff’s house party in Hampshire.
“A lang, lang time ago…” MacPhee began, ignoring St.Vincent’s low groan, “there was a bonnie maid called Malvina. She was the betrothed of Oscar, the braw warrior who won her heart. Oscar bade his beloved tae wait for him while he went tae seek his fortune. But one black day Malvina received word that her lover had been killed in battle. He would lie forever in eternal rest in the faraway hills…lost in endless slumber…”
“God, I envy him,” St. Vincent said feelingly, rubbing his own dark-circled eyes.
“As Malvina’s tears o’ grief wet the grass like dew,” MacPhee continued, “the purple heather at her feet turned white. An’ that’s why every Scottish bride carries white heather on her weddin’ day.”
“That’s the story?” St. Vincent asked with an incredulous scowl. “The heather comes from the tears of a girl over her dead lover?”
“Then how in God’s name can it be a token of good luck?”
MacPhee opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment Florag returned to give Evie a sprig of dried white heather. Murmuring her thanks, Evie allowed the blacksmith to lead her to the anvil in the center of the shop. “Do ye have a ring for the lass?” MacPhee asked St. Vincent, who shook his head. “Sae I thought,” the blacksmith said smugly. “Gavenia, fetch the ring box.” Leaning closer to Evie, he explained, “I join precious metals as well as iron. ‘Tis fine workmanship, an’ all in Scottish gold.”
“She doesn’t need—” St. Vincent stopped with a scowl as Evie raised her gaze to his. He let out a taut sigh. “All right. Choose something quickly.”
Withdrawing a square of wool from the ring box, MacPhee spread it on the anvil and tenderly placed a selection of a half-dozen rings on the fabric. Evie leaned closer to view them. The rings, all gold bands of varying sizes and patterns, were so exquisite and delicate that it seemed impossible for them to have been created by the blacksmith’s burly, broad-fingered hands. “This one is thistles an’ knotwork,” MacPhee said, holding one up for her inspection. “This is a key pattern, an’ this, a Shetland rose.”
Evie picked up the smallest of the rings and tried it on the fourth finger of her left hand. It fit perfectly. Raising it closer to her face, she examined the design. It was the simplest of all the rings, a polished gold band engraved with the words Tha Gad Agam Ort. “What does this mean?” she asked MacPhee.
“It says, ‘My love is upon ye.’”
There was no sound or movement from St. Vincent. Evie flushed in the awkward silence that followed, and slipped the ring off, now regretting having taken any interest in the rings. The sentiment of the phrase was so out of place in this hasty ceremony that it emphasized what a hollow mockery of a wedding it was. “I don’t think I want one after all,” she mumbled, placing the little ring gently onto the cloth.
“We’ll take it,” St. Vincent stunned her by saying. He picked up the gold circlet. As Evie glanced up at him with wide eyes, he added curtly, “They’re just words. It means nothing.”
Evie nodded and bent her head, her violent blush remaining.
MacPhee regarded the two of them with a frown and pulled on the side whiskers of his right cheek. “Lasses,” he said to his daughters with determined cheer, “we’ll have a song from ye now.”
“A song—” St. Vincent protested, and Evie tugged at his arm.
“Let them,” she murmured. “The more you argue, the longer it will take.”
Swearing beneath his breath, St. Vincent stared at the anvil with a narrowed gaze, while the sisters crooned in practiced harmony.
Oh, my love is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June
Oh, my love is like a melody
That’s sweetly played in tune
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
so deep in love am I
And I will love thee still, my dear
Till all the seas gang dry…
Listening to his daughters with glowing pride, the blacksmith waited until the last drawn-out note was finished, and then he praised them lavishly. He turned to the couple by the anvil and said importantly, “Now I maun ask ye this: Are ye both unmarried persons?”
“Yes,” St. Vincent replied shortly.
“An’ have ye a ring for the lass?”
“You just—” St. Vincent stopped with a muttered imprecation as MacPhee’s bushy brows raised expectantly. Clearly if they wanted the ceremony to be done with, they would have to follow the blacksmith’s lead. “Yes,” he growled. “I have one right here.”
“Then place it on the lass’s finger, an’ match yer hand to hers.”
Evie felt queer and light-headed as she stood facing St. Vincent. The moment he slid the ring onto her finger, her heart began beating much too fast, setting off reckless currents of something that was neither eagerness nor fear, but a new emotion that heightened her senses unbearably. There was no word for it, this feeling. Tension gripped her while the pounding of her pulse refused to abate. Their hands flattened together, his fingers much longer than hers, his palm smooth and hot.
His head inclined slightly, his face covering hers. Although he was expressionless, a hint of color had glazed the high planes of his cheekbones and crossed the bridge of his nose. And his breath was faster than usual. Surprised by the realization that she had already come to know something as intimate as the normal rhythm of his breathing, Evie averted her gaze. She saw the blacksmith taking a length of white ribbon from one of his daughters, and she flinched a little as he looped it firmly around their joined wrists.
A wordless murmur tickled her ear, and she felt St. Vincent’s free hand come up to the side of her neck, stroking her as if she were a nervous animal. She relaxed at his touch, while his fingertips moved over her skin with sensitive lightness.
MacPhee busily wrapped the ribbon around their wrists. “Now we tie the knot,” he said, doing so with a flourish. “Repeat after me, lass…‘I do take thee to my husband.’”
“I do take thee to my husband,” Evie whispered.
“Milord?” the blacksmith prompted.
St. Vincent looked down at her, his eyes cool and diamond-bright, revealing nothing. And yet she sensed somehow that he too felt the queer, eager tension that was building between them, a charge as strong as lightning.
His voice was low and quiet. “I do take thee to my wife.”
Satisfaction rang in MacPhee’s voice. “Before God an’ these witnesses I declare ye to be married persons. Whom God hath joined let no man put asunder. That will be eighty-two pounds, three crowns, an’ one shilling.”
St. Vincent tore his gaze from Evie with difficulty and glanced at the blacksmith with a raised eyebrow.
“‘Tis fifty pounds for the ring,” MacPhee said in answer to the wordless question.
“Fifty pounds for a ring with no stones?” St. Vincent inquired acidly.
“That’s Scottish gold,” MacPhee said, looking indignant that his price should be called into question. “Frae the burns o’ the Lowther hills it came—”
“And the rest of it?”
“Thirty pounds for the rites, one pound for the use o’ my shop, one guinea for the marriage certificate, which I will have ready at the morrow, one crown apiece for the witnesses”—the blacksmith paused to gesture to his daughters, who giggled and bobbed in curtsies—“another crown for the flowers—”
“A crown for a handful of dried weeds?” St. Vincent asked in outrage.
“I’ll gi’ ye the song at no charge,” MacPhee conceded graciously. “Oh, an’ a shilling for the ribbon…which ye maun not untie till the marriage is consummated…or ill luck will follow ye from Gretna.”
St. Vincent opened his mouth to argue, but after one glance at Evie’s exhausted face, he reached into his coat for the money. His movements were awkward, for he was right-handed and his left was the only one available for use. Pulling out a wad of banknotes and a few coins, he tossed them onto the anvil. “There,” he said gruffly. “No, don’t return the change. Give it to your daughters”—a sardonic note entered his voice—“along with my gratitude for the song.”
A chorus of thanks erupted from MacPhee and the girls, who were inspired to follow them to the door of the building, singing an extra verse of the wedding song.
And I will love thee still, my dear
Till all the seas gang dry…
The rain had worsened by the time they left the blacksmith’s cottage, coming down in stinging sheets of silver and black. Evie quickened her pace, summoning the last of her strength to return to the shelter of the inn. She felt as if she were walking through a dream. Everything seemed out of proportion—it was difficult to focus her eyes, and the muddy ground seemed to shift capriciously beneath her feet. To her disgruntlement, St. Vincent stopped her by the side of the building under the shelter of a dripping eave.
“What is it?” she asked numbly.
He reached for their bound wrists and began to tug at the knotted ribbon. “I’m getting rid of this.”
“No. Wait.” The hood of her cloak fell back as she fumbled to stop him. Her hand covered his, temporarily stilling the motion of his fingers.
“Why?” St. Vincent asked impatiently. Water trickled from the edge of his hat as he looked down at her. Evening had fallen, and the only illumination was the feeble glow shed by the sputtering street lamps. Dim though the light was, it seemed to catch in his pale blue eyes, causing them to gleam as if with their own inner illumination.
“You heard what Mr. MacPhee said—it’s bad luck if we untie the ribbon.”
“You’re superstitious,” St. Vincent said in a disbelieving tone. Evie nodded apologetically.
It was not difficult to see that his temper was being held in check by a thread far more tenuous than the ribbon that connected their wrists. As they stood together in the dark and cold, their tethered arms held upward at an awkward angle, Evie felt the fingers of his imprisoned hand cupping over her fist. It was the only warm part of her body, the place where his hand covered hers.
St. Vincent spoke with an exaggerated patience that, had Evie been in full possession of her wits, would have warned her to withdraw her objections immediately. “Do you really want to go into the tavern like this?”
It was irrational, but Evie was too exhausted to make sense of her feelings. All she knew was that she’d had enough ill fortune to last a lifetime and she did not want to invite any more. “This is Gretna Green. No one will think anything of it. And I thought you didn’t care about appearances.”
“I’ve never had any objection to appearing depraved or villainous. But I draw the line at looking like a prize idiot.”
“No, don’t,” Evie said urgently as St. Vincent reached for the ties once more. She grappled with him, her fingers tangling with his. And then suddenly his mouth had caught hers, and he pushed her against the side of the building, anchoring her with his own body. His free hand caught the nape of her neck, beneath the weight of her damp hair. The lush pressure of his mouth caused a shock of response in every part of her body, all at once. She didn’t know how to kiss, what to do with her mouth. Bewildered and shaking, she urged her closed lips back against his, while her heart thumped wildly and her limbs went weak.
He wanted things that she didn’t know how to give. Sensing her confusion, he drew back and possessed her mouth with small, persistent kisses, the bristle on his face scraping gently against hers. His fingers came to the fragile structure of her jaw, tilting her chin, his thumb coaxing her lower lip apart from the upper. The instant he gained an opening, he sealed his mouth over hers. She could taste him, a subtle and alluring essence that affected her like some exotic drug. His tongue pushed inside her, exploring in caressing strokes…. sliding deeper as she offered no resistance.
After a luxuriously probing kiss, he eased back until their mouths were barely touching, their breath mingling in steamy puffs that were visible in the chilled night air. He brushed a half-open kiss against her lips, and another, his soft exhalations filling her mouth. The light kisses strayed across her cheek to the intricate hollow of her ear, and she gasped shakily as she felt his tongue trace the fragile rim, just before his teeth caught softly at the tiny lobe. She writhed in response, sensation streaking down to her br**sts and farther, gathering low in intimate places.