|The main room and hearth of the MacKinnon cabin|
(Editor’s note: This was first published at Under the Covers Book Blog and was written specifically for a giveaway there. I wanted to share it with you all in case anyone missed it. Eventually, I’ll archive it on my website.)
This little story features Iain and Annie from Surrender (MacKinnon’s Rangers Book 1) and Morgan and Amalie from Untamed (MacKinnon’s Rangers Book 2). In order to make it fit the story without giving away spoilers from Connor’s book, Defiant, which won’t be out till July 3, I’ve set this on the St. Valentine’s Day that occurs between the ending of Untamed and the epilogue of Untamed. I pick up in the story where it was at that point to add this mini-story. Annie had just had a baby, and Amalie was only about a month away from giving birth to her first child.
The time is February 13, 1760. The place is the MacKinnon Farm on the New York frontier north of Albany. Two husbands conspire to make St. Valentine’s gifts for their wives amid the uncertainties that marked life at that time…
“There’s naugh’ like a good breakfast to warm a man’s belly. I thank you, lasses.” Iain MacKinnon shared a glance with his younger brother Morgan and caught Morgan’s barely perceptible nod. He took a last gulp of coffee and rose from the table. “We’d best be seein’ to the new calf, aye, Morg?”
“Aye.” Morgan gulped back the last of his coffee and stood.
Annie looked over at them from the hearth where she’d just set wash water on the hob to boil. “Do you think it survived the night? ’Twas frightful cold.”
“We’ll soon ken.” Iain let his gaze travel over his wife, her golden hair twisted atop her head, a gray woolen shawl around her shoulders.
She’d gotten little sleep last night, newborn Mara having woken several times to feed. But even with dark circles beneath her eyes, Annie was the most beautiful sight Iain had ever beheld. “I hate to think of it sufferin’ in the cold and dark.”
Iain rounded the table, drew his wife against him, sorry to have made her fret. “You think of Iain Cameron and little Mara and let us worry about the calf. We willna let the wee thing suffer, I promise you, mo leannan.”
Morgan bent down to press a kiss against Amalie’s cheek. “Your johnnycakes are unmatched.”
“At least I have learned to turn them without breaking them.” A mug of tea in hand, Amalie smiled up at him, her face aglow. Heavy with child, she was the center of Morgan’s world. If she did not make it safely through her travail…
Nay, Iain would not let himself think such thoughts.
Besides, they had other matters to tend to today, and the weak calf was only an excuse to give the two of them more time away from the women in the barn.
Iain bundled up against the cold, opened the door and stepped into the winter morning, Morgan following close behind. The sky to the east glowed pink against a bank of clouds, the bare branches of the trees tangled against the heavens. A cold wind pushed down on them from the north, biting the skin, carrying with it the scent of snow.
Inside the dark warmth of the barn, they found the calf nursing, its mother lowing protectively as Iain and Morgan approached.
“We’ve no’ come to trouble you, missy,” Iain called to the restless cow, which watched them with a dark eye. He lit a lantern and set it on a nearby shelf, then blew puffs of breath against his fingers to warm them.
“Do you think they ken?” Morgan went to the back wall and withdrew the skin bundle that held the wampum band he was making for Amalie’s wrist.
“Nay.” Iain took forth the bundle that held the bit of wood he’d been carving at all week, drew out his penknife and sat on a nearby stool. “Like as no’, they think we’ve forgotten what day it is.”
Iain busied himself with the bit of chestnut he’d been whittling at for the past month. He’d finished carving it yesterday. Now it remained only to polish it to a shine. And yet…
He gaze at the carven amulet in his palm and found it naught but a trifle. How could a bit of wood convey to Annie how very much he loved her? After all she’d done for him, it seemed nothing. “A woman suffers to bear a man two children. He ough’ to be able to gi’ her somethin’ of worth.”
“Annie kent you were no’ a wealthy man when she wed you.” Morgan did not look up, his gaze fixed on the tiny bits of purple and white shell he was threading onto sinew. “She’s given you bairns, aye, but you give her a warm home, a full larder. You keep her and the wee ones safe. You keep her happy in bed—”
“I told you no’ to speak of that again.” Iain frowned.
Morgan chuckled. “’Tis no’ my fault if Annie’s cries wake everyone in the house. As I said, you keep her happy.”
“’Tis past time we built you a house of your own and got you out from under our roof.”
Morgan grinned at his brother’s sour temper, but his own heart was beset by fears. In a month at most, Amalie’s time would come. She was already so great with child, he could not imagine her belly growing bigger. Having been nearby both times Annie had given birth, he could not help but fear what Amalie might suffer. And yet there was naugh’ he could do about it. He tried to tell himself late at night that women had been giving birth since Eve, but knowing that did nothing to lessen his anxiety. If anything should befall her or the child…
Worse, he knew that Amalie was afraid. And what lass wouldn’t be? Women died in childbed as men died in battle. He wished he knew how to assuage her fears, to ease her last weeks before the birth.
He bent his thoughts around the beads in his hands, the image in his mind of what he hoped to create for her. He slipped on a purple bead, made a small knot, then two whites, then another knot. Would it look the way he’d envisioned it by the time he was done? He hoped so.
Iain peered over at him. “What is it you’re making there? Is that some kind of strange hatchet?”
Morgan frowned, held up his handiwork. “Nay. ’Tis supposed to be a single tree growin’ from two entwined hearts.”
Iain tilted his head, squinted. “Och, aye. I can see now. When did you learn to bead wampum?”
“Not all of us spent our time among the Mahican tuppin’.”
Iain chuckled. “Or perhaps you couldna find a black-eyed Mahcian lass who wanted to take you to her bed.”
“You ken that’s no’ true.”
For a time they worked in silence.
Morgan looked at the wooden heart Iain was polishing. Round and about the size of a gold sovereign, the golden wood was streaked with veins of rose as that kind of wood often was when beset by certain beetles. “I’ve some sinew if you need it for the cord.”
Iain shook his head. “I’ve a bit of silk ribbon. It will be softer against her skin than sinew.”
“Have it your way.” Morgan worked swiftly, hoping the band would fit Amalie’s wrist and be neither so large that it slipped off as she worked nor so small that it pinched her. This was Amalie’s first Valentine’s Day as a married woman. “I dinnae ken whether Amalie thinks of St. Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers, or whether she thinks of it only as a saint’s day.”
She’d been raised in a convent under the strict supervision of the Ursulines. Morgan very much doubted they’d spoke with her about romantic love.
“I trust you, brother, to reveal the full joy of the day to her.” Iain gave him a wink.
The talk shifted to the farm and the work that needed to be done ere spring. An old plough to repair. Tack to polish. Manure to haul and spread on the fields. One horse that needed to be reshod. Seed to bring from Albany.
And soon it was time to set their work aside once more to see to the livestock.
St. Valentine’s Day was coming, but the farm could not wait.
# # #February 14
Annie nursed Mara, then tucked her in her cradle, taking a few minutes for a hot bath. Iain and Morgan were still outside, seeing to the wee calf, and Annie was happy to have a few moments to prepare for her husband. Her body was not yet healed from childbirth, so she could not lie with him. But what woman didn’t want to feel clean and fresh for her lover?
She slipped into a warm nightgown, drew her shawl around her shoulders, and went to check on Iain Cameron, who was already fast asleep. How like his father he looked! His dark hair, tiny dark brows, the features of his face. She drew up the bearskin that covered him just as the door to their chamber opened, and Iain stepped inside.
The sight of him made her smile. “The water is still warm if you’d like a bath.”
Iain nodded, his cheeks ruddy from the cold. “My thanks.”
He quickly shed his clothing, setting his knife and pistol on the table and shucking off his leather breeches, his man’s body appealing to her, no matter than she could not receive him. He slid into the water with a groan, and she knelt beside the tub to wash him.
“How is the calf?” She took up a cloth and spilled water over his broad chest, watching as his muscles tensed, rivulets trickling down to his ribbed belly.
“The calf? Och, aye, the calf.” Iain grinned as if responding to a secret jest. “He’s well enough. I think he’ll pull through.”
Annie felt a warm surge of relief. So much depended on the livestock. “I’m glad to hear it.”
She rubbed soap on her palms and indulged herself, skin sliding over soap-slick skin as she washed his chest, belly, arms and back, his cock growing rigid as she bathed him. But when she reached down to grasp him, he caught her hand.
“Nay, lass. ’Tis no’ right of me to seek my pleasure when you cannae do the same. Until you’re healed, I’ll be just as chaste as you must be.”
Taken aback by his refusal to accept her intimate touch, Annie stared at him in confusion. It was St. Valentine’s Day, and although he had clearly forgotten, she had hoped to bring him some joy. “But you’re aroused and…”
He grinned. “If a wife were expected to tend to her husband’s every cockstand, there’d be little else that would happen upon this earth. Now help me finish this bath.”
Soon he stood dry and dressed in soft cotton under-breeches, ready for bed. While Annie crawled beneath the covers, he built up the fire, then walked over to his breeches and returned, something in his hand.
He sat beside her on the bed. “This is for you — a St. Valentine’s gift.” He placed a small object bound in parchment in her palm.
Her gaze shot to his. “You didna forget!”
“Nay.” He smiled, the masculine features of his face softening, becoming boyish, then he frowned. “’Tis a trifle, really, no’ fittin’ for a woman as beautiful as you, nor the mother of my children.”
Quickly, Annie unwrapped it, parchment falling aside to reveal a wooden amulet in the shape of a heart. It was clear he’d been working on this for weeks. The wood gleamed in veins of gold and red, smooth to the touch, heavy in her palm. A small hole had been bored at the top through which he had passed a slender ribbon of red silk.
Annie’s vision blurred. She blinked. “Oh, Iain, ’tis lovely!”
He caught her chin, tilted her head, looked deeply into her eyes. “There are no words I can speak to tell you what you mean to me, naugh’ I can give you worthy of the gifts you’ve given me — your love, your smile, our two wee bairns.”
She pressed her fingers to his lips. “You risked your life for mine more than once. You gave the skin off your back to save me. If that is not the fullness of man’s love, what is?”
He seemed to consider her words for a moment, then took up the necklace and slipped it over her head, the wooden heart coming to rest in the valley between her breasts. “My heart is yours for the keepin’, Annie.”
She pressed her hands against his gift, the warmth of it settling against her heartbeat. “As mine is yours.”
# # #
Amalie took Morgan’s hand as he helped her rise from the washtub, wrapped her in a warm blanket and settled her on her side on the bed. He sat behind her and began to rub the small of her back, which he knew ached fiercely.
She moaned with relief, her eyes drifting shut. “Oh!”
“Does that help?”
“Yes. O, merci.”
Inside her womb, the baby moved restlessly. It was almost never still now, whether it be night or day, and though she lost sleep, she was grateful to know the child was vigorous.
“It is a boy.”
Morgan chuckled, his lips pressing a kiss against her hair, his hands easing the pain from her lower back. “Last month, you said it was lass.”
“It must be a boy. No little girl could wriggle as much as this one does.”
“We’ll ken soon enough. In six weeks’ time, he or she will be sleepin’ in yon cradle.”
Amalie opened her eyes and gazed at the cradle Morgan had carved, ignoring the trill of fear she felt at the thought of her approaching travail. It was a beautiful cradle, a thistle carved into the head and a fleur de lis carved in at the foot—the symbols of their two countries.
She smiled, took Morgan’s hand and pressed his palm against the place where the baby was kicking the hardest.
Morgan rubbed her belly lightly, chuckling softly. “He — or she — is strong. You are strong. All shall be well, lass.”
Amalie closed her eyes again, taking in her husband’s strength, letting his sureness push her fear away. She’d been with Annie when Annie had given birth and had been amazed by Annie’s strength, the sight of the child emerging from Annie’s body making her stare in awe.
If Annie could endure it, Amalie could, too.
She glanced over at the votive candle she’d lit, both in honor of St. Valentine — and as plea for strength during her coming ordeal.
Morgan kissed her again. “Close your eyes.”
She did as he asked, listening as he moved about the room. He returned quickly, his weight pressing the bed down beside her, making the ropes creak.
“Dinnae open them.”
She laughed. “What are you about?”
He took her wrist, bound something about it, the feel of it cool against her skin. “Now open your eyes.”
She did as he asked, raising her wrist to find herself looking at a bracelet of delicately woven wampum. The edges were scalloped in white shell, the body of it in purple. And at the center, running the length of the bracelet, was an image that immediately put a lump in her throat — two entwined hearts, and, growing from them, a great tree.
She sat up, gazed up at her husband in amazement. “Oh, Morgan! It’s beautiful! But why… ?”
“’Tis St. Valentine’s Day, is it no’?” Morgan smiled. “It is the custom among my people for men to give gifts to their lovers, small tokens of their affection.”
But this was not small token. It was clear he’d spent hours working on it. And she understood.
She narrowed her gaze, fighting a smile. “The calf — it was never truly in peril, was it?”
“No’ as much as we led you to believe. How else could we get time away?”
Amalie gazed down at the wampum bracelet again, touched by its meaning both as a gift and as a symbol. “Two hearts. A great tree. The baby?”
He pressed a palm against her belly.
“Let me be your strength in the coming weeks, Amalie.” The sincerity on his face brought the lump back to her throat, his face so handsome it made her heart ache.
She smiled up at him. “Two hearts. One life.”
And as Morgan gathered Amalie into the refuge of his embrace, his warm hands sliding beneath her nightgown and over her skin, joy filled her heart, chasing her fears away.
# # #
Defiant, Connor’s story, picks up six weeks later when Connor is sent to save the niece of the MacKinnon brothers’ most hated enemy — Lord William Wentworth — from captivity among the Indians. Visit my website for excerpts from Surrender Untamed and Defiant. Be sure to stay tuned here for more MacKinnon’s Rangers specials.