Thursday, November 16, 2017

Chapter Five: Wedding Bells(Part Two)



"And what do I..."

"You, Laird John, greet her at the curb," Brigid said, looking out from the main entrance at the crowd scattered through the chapel. "You take her hand and bring her in nice and formal, and lead her to the altar, where you'll pass her off to the priest so he can do the deed."

"Giving my daughter away..." John took a deep breath. "I hope she doesn't make a fuss."

"What's she going to do? Shoot you?" Brigid chuckled, though she seemed a bit nervous too. "I suppose she could refuse to say 'I do.'"

"She wouldn't." John was not certain of that. "I hope old Laird MacLoughlin wouldn't blame me."
"Never hurts to be optimistic, my laird."

"Thanks for boosting my confidence." John took a deep breath of the incense-tinged chapel as he heard the horns. "That'll be Corlane with the girls."

"Right!" Brigid clapped him on the shoulder. "Let's do what we can."

A moment later, John emerged into the sunlight, watching the carriage with the MacTavish family crest pull up. Corlane sat behind the reins with a wide smile, waving cheerfully at the crowd arranged around the carpeted path into the church. Armsmen with ceremonial arquebuses lined the pathway, half each MacLoughlin and MacTavish, and they all snapped to attention as John emerged and the carriage halted.

"Laird MacTavish!" someone in the crowd shouted. Heads turned.

Mac-Tav-ish! they chanted. Mac-Tav-ish! Mac-Tav-ish for King-of-Clans!

"Morning to you!" he called, managing a wave. The cheerers redoubled their efforts, but John sighed as he heard the inevitable counter-volley.

Mac-Phear-son! Mac-Phear-son! And, more faintly but with growing vitriol: Mac-Don-ald!
That only incensed his apparent supporters. Mac-Tav-ish for King-of-Clans!

"Thank you!" he cried, waving high over his head. A cheer was the response, and he smiled as wide as he could. "I'm not in the running!" He turned back for the carriage. "In case any of you avid politicos forgot..."

And then he was at the carriage, and Corlane was dismounting. John got the door, and the first one he saw was Ardyn.

"Good morning, dear." John offered his hand very formally, and pulled his niece from the carriage, pausing to kiss her knuckles before handing her over to her own father. "You look lovely." 

"Thank you, Uncle John, but it's really Kacey's day."

"That it is." And with that alone for bracing, John leaned down into the carriage.

Kacey glared daggers through her wedding veil, clutching her bouquet with white-knuckled fingers.

"Come on, Kace." John offered his hand. "It's time."

"Is it?" she nearly spat the words. "You expect me to just go up there and...and..." She trailed off. "Dad..."

"Kacey, it's for the best," John said. "Let's get through the day, now."

"I don't want to," she protested.

"Come on." He reached out and took her hand. "Kace."

Her eye twitched. "You're awful." But she pushed her way over to him and took his hand, and John was prepared to take verbal abuse if such was the price of cooperation.

Mac-Tav-ish! Mac-Tav-ish! The sight of Kacey in white was just enough to drive the crowd up louder. John made sure to hold up her hand in clear view before he kissed it.

Her eyes blazed.

"We're pretty popular, aren't we?" John asked. He took a relieved breath as Kacey fell into step beside him, her arm in his, with Corlane and Ardyn behind them. The church doors loomed.

Something nagged at the back of his mind: an old itch that had never gone away. It was like he'd forgotten something...or noticed something. He tried not to frown at the crowd...but something about all this wasn't...

"I'm glad I'm useful," Kacey snapped, but it was in as low a voice as she could use without being drowned out by the crowd.

Mac-Don-ald! Mac-Tav-ish! Mac-Phearson!

"And you look beautiful, too." John forced a smile, while he busily tried to crack the nut of his problems. It was something fairly enormous, it had to be, if all his instincts were up in arms over it...it was just like when he'd held down that drow village in the war...

"Laird MacTavish!" The throng pressed at the guardsmen. "My laird!"

"Hello!" John said, waving and keeping up his smile. "It's a new day for two families, isn't it? Can you hear the bells?"

"Stop it," Kacey growled. "Am I just a display to you?"

"Life's a stage, Kace-"

"Don't you Kace me," she growled, before subsiding.

"My laird!" One man pressed at the edge of the line, waving more energetically than most. "Greetings, my laird!"

"Hello!" John nodded graciously. "I'm just walking my daughter in. No time-"

"You should be King of Clans!" the man cried. "The throne belongs to MacTavish! It's in your blood, sir!"

"Is it?" John asked. He laughed. "What do you think, love? Kacey, Queen of Clans?"

She huffed. "I guess you would want that use out of me, wouldn't you?"

"Ah, lay off," he urged with a sigh. "Can't I say something nice?"

"Laird MacTavish!" There was noise ahead. John frowned.

"Oh, come on," Corlane muttered.

"What is-" John sighed as a wave pushed past the armsmen, rushing around him and Kacey with shouts of Mac-Tav-ish!

"Laird MacTavish!" The loud man appeared in front of him, a big smile splitting his cheeks under bright, bright green eyes. "A message from the Family Marona!"

Bang!

It was loud as thunder, and fire seared John's chest. He gasped, suddenly short of breath, and stumbled. His legs wavered, red sprayed, and...and...

The man's gun twitched, and his second, unfired barrel turned to John's side.

"No!"

Bang!

John's hand released the shooter's wrist almost as fast as he'd seized it, and his dive became a collapse. He hit the ground hard on his side, choking up blood from two bulletholes instead of one.

But as reward...Kacey shrieked, and not from injury.

"Dad!"

"Little John!" Corlane lunged forward. The green-eyed man melted back into the crowd in the instant before dozens of ceremonial arquebuses went off, firing blank into the air. Screams filled the morning, and the meaty thuds of wood hafts hitting skulls.

"Dad!" Kacey nearly fell overtop him, red staining her skirts, grabbing for him. "Dad! Speak to me!"

John coughed. He slipped, and he fell on his back, with her over him. His mouth moved, but he couldn't...no sound came out. He couldn't breathe...

"Dad..." Kacey inhaled sharply, her blue eyes full of horror as she regarded his wound. Determination lit her eyes in that one, horrifying instant, and then she took his hand in hers. She raised her other, and John saw her curling her fingers, pushing her palm down-

He caught her wrist with the strength of desperation. She glanced up, face pale and uncomprehending.

John shook his head, though pain and shock made it slow. He stared into those beautiful eyes they shared...

"Dad...Dad, no..." Kacey's jaw worked. "Dad, I can-"

"Kace..." he reached up for her with bloodstained fingers, unable to breathe. He had to say something. It was important...but he couldn't...why couldn't he remember?

"Kace," he muttered. "Kace...Ka...Kacey..."

His fingers brushed her cheek.

"Dad!" she called. "Dad!"

And then the light was blinding, and her voice was far away...

***

"Dad!" Kacey called. She gasped as his hand fell, and she grabbed for it. "Dad, no-" She felt an explosion of cold in her own veins as she touched his...and didn't feel anything.

"No." She swallowed, then lifted her hand again. "Hang on, Dad-"

"Oi!" Arms were around her from behind. She screamed and lashed out, but her elbows did nothing to Corlane. He hauled her back away from her father-

"Let me go!" she screamed. "No! Don't you take me from him! Let me go! Dad!"

"Get down!" Corlane cried. He held her as she thrashed, trying, struggling to eke her way from his grip-

She saw him. Her breath caught as she saw him, across the street and away from the crowd, having shed outer clothes to reveal new underneath, looking like a new man.

But he couldn't hide those green eyes.

"Hey! He's-"

Kacey broke off as a carriage went by. For an instant, the man was invisible - and when the carriage was gone, so was he.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Chapter Five: Wedding Bells(Part One)



"Miss Kacey?"

Kacey MacTavish - Kacey MacLoughlin, she dourly realized she would be by lunch - looked up from her bed and the book in which she was unsuccessfully attempting to hide from her future.

"Brigid?" She marked her place as the maid entered. Kacey froze. "What...is that?"

"Isn't it lovely?" Brigid hurried over to the bed, and she laid out a long white...thing adorned with lace. "It was your grandmother's, and I had it cleaned and mended and sized just for you."

"I'm not wearing that," Kacey objected. "I won't be able to do more'n walk!"

"And why should you need to do anything but walk, Miss Kacey?" Brigid gave her a very searching look. "Planning on being a runaway bride?"

"No!" Kacey looked down. "I wouldn't get far, would I?"

"Not exactly the logic I'd be happiest to hear from you, but I won't complain if it keeps you in line."

"You sound like Dad," Kacey snapped. "Fetch a leash and collar for me, why don't you?"

"Miss Kacey..." Brigid shifted her weight. "I beg your pardon, then, Miss. I overstepped my bounds. Only meant it as a joke, but I'm sorry still."

"Brigid..." Kacey, not for the first time, wondered at the woman's balancing act. Acting the mother to Kacey and Ardyn both, despite technically being their servant...it wasn't a trick the redhead would have liked to perform. "It's fine. I'm just snippy lately."

"Maybe this will help a little." Brigid produced a little package bound in brown paper. "I found this on one of my strolls through the nice market."

"The nice market?" Kacey frowned. "What were you doing there?"

"I would hope you shouldn't have to ask that question." The middle-aged brunette offered her gift. "For better or worse, I figured...it is your wedding day. Brides deserve presents."

"Well..." Kacey coughed. "Thank you. You didn't have to."

"Nonsense." Brigid waited while the redhead confiscated her soon-to-be possession. The maid hesitated. "Your father's downstairs. He and I are off to the church in a few."

"Are you?" Kacey eyed the paper. "And me?"

"Miss Ardyn volunteered to help you with your dress," Brigid said. "She'll be in presently when she's finished with her own. And your uncle will drive the both of you once you're ready." She waited for a moment, while Kacey studiously said nothing. "Miss Kacey-"

"I know what you're going to say," she muttered.

"I'll say it anyway, because someone has to." Brigid eyed her. "I think you should come downstairs with me and say your good-byes to the Laird. He is your father, you know."

"I have nothing to say to him," Kacey growled. She glared up at Brigid. "He's made his bed and he can lie in it for all I care. He needs me to marry Angus, and he can force me up to the altar and into nuptials if that's his wish. But I've no intention of carrying on with him as if we still love each other, and that's that!"

Silence. Kacey fiddled with the package, regretting the sting in her voice and the nature of her words, but still certain deep down that her anger was righteous.

He wanted me to obey, and I'm obeying, Kacey insisted in her head. Let's see if he doesn't regret throwing away his daughter for his schemes, shall we?

"Well, if that's your decision, Miss Kacey, it's hardly my place to argue." Brigid definitely sounded cold. "I just hope that you don't wind up regretting holding on to all this, when all the dice finish rolling." She turned for the door. "I hope you like the gift."

Kacey glared after her every step until the door shut. She spared the horrendously ugly wedding dress a glance, before rolling her eyes - since it was that or moan.

"My life is a disaster," she whispered, as she plucked at her wedding gift's wrapping. Carefully, she opened it, discarding the paper without a care.

"A Full Guide to Drow Hand-Witchery..." Kacey examined the little black book with wonder. "Brigid, how did you..."

Stupid question. The maid was a Vod-witch herself, and she'd said she'd found it at the 'nice market.' No one who wasn't a witch would recognize the term, but to come out and say you were shopping at the illicit witches' dens was dangerous. The redhead opened the book, hunting for anything that might help her avert or survive her wedding day.

"Health," she muttered, examining a series of drawings showing a man flattening his hand, curling his fingers inward, and putting the heel of his palm right on the center of someone else's chest. "Yeah, I figured that one out myself." She mimed the action anyway. "Let's see. Clarity..." She made as if to tap someone's forehead with her index and ring fingers, her others curled in. "Safety..." She mimed caressing someone's cheek.

She paused as she got to what looked like an obscene gesture: index and middle finger crossed, ring finger half-curled, little finger fully tucked in, and thumb sticking out almost like she was signing a severely malformed L. She examined the drawing, showing a woman shoving it into a large man's face.

"Fell Fate," Kacey murmured. "Causes an immediate reversal of fortune for the target." She regretted that her father had already left.

"Kacey?" That was followed by a knock.

"Ardyn?" She lowered the book. "I'm decent."

"That's a lie." But Ardyn came anyway, and she was preceded by a happy black bolt.

"Gods, Soap!" Kacey burst out laughing as the dog bounded up on the bed beside her. "Hello, gorgeous-"

"Soap!" Ardyn shoved him. "Move!"

"What?" Kacey asked, frowning. Ardyn pointed...and the redhead burst out laughing. "Good boy, Soap!"

"He got hair all over it," Ardyn groused, pulling the wedding dress up and doing her level best to brush it off.

"I know!" Kacey beamed. "Maybe I won't have to wear it if he gets a bit more on it."

"It's lovely," Ardyn protested. "I wish I was wearing white."

"That would mean you'd be the bride." Kacey eyed Ardyn, and her glistening silver dress and elaborately coifed golden hair. "Easy for you to make fashion statements, too: you're effortlessly beautiful."

"I hardly call all morning effortless," she grumbled. The blue eyes they shared met.

"...I don't want to do this," Kacey finally muttered. "Marry Angus."

"I hardly want you to either," Ardyn assured her, quite fervently. "But that's what Uncle John's settled on, and I don't know as there's a way out now that won't just lead to worse."

"I could run away," Kacey offered, half-heartedly. "Take his claymore and shield and go hunting for my mother's legacy."

"And what? Starve on the road?" Ardyn made a face. "If I thought you'd get away with it, I'd cover for you in a heartbeat. You could lock me in the closet and I'd claim you threw me in there. Whatever would help."

"...but I won't get away with it," Kacey finished, sullen. "And I don't know that..." She fidgeted. "This is home. It's where I belong."

"I know." Ardyn reached out and patted her shoulder. Kacey breathed, reaching up to take her cousin's hand.

"I know," Ardyn repeated, as Soap wormed his way into Kacey's lap as if he were a much smaller animal. "We'll figure this out, Kacey, one day at a time. I'll be here for you. Together, we can try to salvage at least something."

Kacey smiled, despite the curling dread that chilled her bones. "Thank you, cousin."

"It's what family's for." Ardyn took a breath. "Right, then. On your feet, young lady: let's get you decked up in this whopper, shall we?"

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Chapter Four: Cold Walls(Part Two)



"Look, I know..." John paused, visibly hunting for words. "I know you're not...happy with me, right now."

"That's one way of putting it." Kacey glared down into the cup.

"I do love you, sweetheart," John said. "I promise. I'm not trying to...I don't want to..."

"I know." Even quieter. Kacey held tight to the warm porcelain cup, eyes stinging. "Dad...I'm frightened."

He sighed. Gently, he put a hand on her shoulder, and Kacey didn't shake him off.

"Me too."

"What have you got to be scared of?" Kacey asked. She sniffed. "It's my life that's about to change. About to...end, for all intents and purposes. You're not about to be fixed for life as furniture."

"Angus is a better man than that," John insisted. "He'll treat you right. You know it as well as I do."

"Maybe," Kacey had to admit. "But...Dad..."

"Kacey..." It seemed to take a great effort of will for him to continue. He clutched her shoulder a little tighter. "There's...I should probably tell you something."

"Tell me what?" Kacey frowned, glancing over at him. "Dad, are you well?"

"I'm-" He coughed into his elbow. "Well. It's been stressful lately, for me as much as you."

"Oh."

"That's why I really should...Kacey, the thing is-"

"Stressful for you?" She eyed him darkly. "What's the problem for you? You're being rid of responsibility for me."

"Kace..." John looked very serious. "I need you to listen to me-"

"Listen?" She clutched the tea very tightly. "I've listened my whole life! What do I have to show for it?"

"Kacey, please-"

"What's there to say?" she demanded. Vulnerable she had been for a minute, and the only way this Highlander knew to protect herself was to attack. "You've made it clear how you feel about me!" She lifted a hand and swatted his away, curling her lip. "Why'd you even bother popping in here? To reminisce like old times?"

"Because I love you," John said, and Kacey couldn't help but laugh. Hysterical, that laugh, and derisive too, coming through her tears like it did.

"Right. You love me so much you're selling me." She turned her back deliberately. "There is no closeness between us any more, Dad, and you've only got yourself to blame."

Silence. Kacey waited for his next words, considering how best to rejoin. She quaked, thinking of the betrothal, of his dismissal of her concerns, of how she'd only been trying to help...she felt very righteous in her wrath.

That righteousness took a bit of a hit when John simply let out a breath and rose. Kacey listened to him pace to the door.

"I do love you," he insisted, tone soft. "I promise, Kace. I'm sorry."

She didn't respond. Kacey just waited for her father to leave, holding steady until she heard the door pull shut behind him.

And only then did she hurriedly set the teacup down so she could throw herself back on Soap and burst into tears.

***

John gasped. Rivers of sweat coursed from his hair down his face, and he shivered in the cold night air.

"You sound like you're out to have a heart attack."

"You certainly try." John relaxed a bit, rubbing at his eyes where he sat on the edge of his master bed. He sighed as warm fingers found their way to his shoulder.

"I don't hear a thank-you," Brigid chastised, and John had to laugh.

"All right, devilish woman. Thank you."

"You're very welcome...my laird." Mocking, now, the way she dropped the title. John sighed, but truth be told, he rather liked Brigid when she wasn't putting on her show.

"If only..." He left it at that.

"Get up." Brigid shoved him gently. "Your body needs to move."

"It doesn't...Brigid, it doesn't want to..." But he obeyed, and despite screaming knees and wobbling ankles, John managed to get his feet under him. Feeling the wall one-handed, he limped in a rough circle, heart still beating for freedom.

"Talk." She didn't strike a tindertwig and light the lamp, but John thought he caught the glint of her eyes as she stretched. He listened to the faint rustle of her clothes in the dark, barely audible over the pattering rain.

"What makes you think I need to-"

"You always need to talk." Brigid waited then, and after a moment, John had to yield.

"I overheard Ardyn and Kacey," he admitted, under his breath in case either of them had awoken for a drink and were returning the favor. "She's bloody terrified."

"I imagine so. I'd be terrified."

"That's different," John protested. "There's a whole different set of objections and factors between us."

"Fair." Brigid hummed in the back of her throat, in that soft way she always did when she was thinking. "It is rather a big thing you've dropped on her, John."

"I know. And I wish I hadn't." He sighed, leaning on the door frame. "Did I have another choice?"

Quiet. Then... "No."

"I don't want to wed her off," he confessed. "I don't want to do this."

"I know."

John rubbed at his forehead, wiping sweat away. "I make a terrible laird, don't I? Here I am doing this to her, and I can't even be stone-hearted about it all. It makes me nauseous."

"You're doing the best you know how. No one can ask for more than that." Brigid paused. "Come back here."

"Brigid, you just had me up and-"

"And now I want you back here." She appeared from the dark like the witch she was then, and John jumped at the icy touch of her hands.

"All right, I suppose." He let her lead him to the bed, and groaned as his knees doubly protested the descent. The maid's arm went around his shoulders, and he embraced her waist when she sat at his side.

"I wish I could do more," Brigid finally said, and John heard the husky strain in her voice. "I'm sorry, John. I'm not half witch enough for what you need."

"I doubt a Greenhaven wizard with a wand cut from dragonwood could do better," he assured her. His smile only lasted a moment before it vanished into the dark. "Brigid?"

"John?" He felt her hair tickle his shoulder as she leaned her head on him.

"I tried to talk to Kacey," he confessed. "I tried to soothe things over, and I tried to...to..."

"...you tried to tell her, didn't you?" Brigid's tone was amazed. "John...I didn't think you had it in you-"

"She wouldn't listen. It was exactly what I thought." He leaned his head into his free hand. "She's made up her mind and she's furious."

"Talk to her after-"

"After the wedding?" John scoffed, which was less than diplomatic, but he couldn't help himself. "She'll not listen to a word I have to say after I shackle her up with Angus. You know it as well as I do."

"You need to talk to her at some point," Brigid insisted. John nodded.

"I know. There are things I want to tell her. About her mum, about how we...what all happened." He fidgeted. "About me. But I can't...she won't listen. There's not the right time."

Brigid's arm vanished, and then her waist did too. John blinked, but he heard her cross to his shelves, and for a moment she hunted.

"Miss Stewart, it's close on midnight," John protested. "I don't know what you expect to find in the pitch black but-"

"I may have the eyes of a cat, but you don't." A tindertwig lit up the dark, and John had to cover his eyes. By the time he'd adjusted and looked back, Brigid had lit the lamp and returned to her spot at his side, with one of his old dog-eared notebooks and a quill with ink.

"Brigid, what is this?"

"She won't listen now," the maid who was so much more than that agreed. "But John, someday she'll be more amenable. Someday she'll wish she'd had the chance to talk to you about some of these things, before things got out of hand and the cold walls became too tall." Her lips found his cheek, and he inhaled softly as her arms wrapped around him thereafter.

"So-"

"So talk to her," Brigid ordered. "Right here, right now." She nodded to the paper and pen. "Talk to her, John: tell her everything."

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Chapter Four: Cold Walls(Part One)



Weeks passed. John dealt with the affairs of his business, and he managed question after question about the wedding. Everything from food to wine to decorations and floral arrangements came to his desk, and he executed the prerogatives of a powerful laird in his authoritarian and insightful management of it all.

"I don't bleeding care about the floral arrangements," John growled, hiding behind his newspaper. "Deal with it, Brigid. I don't care how."

"Very well, my laird." Brigid scribbled a note with a long-suffering sigh. "Kacey hasn't tried to run away in the night yet."

"Has she tried anything stupid to get us to call this off?"

"Well, if she has, it hasn't worked." That made good sense, but didn't make John feel much better. Brigid held out the package under her arm. "Oh, this came in today."

"Did it?" John frowned. "Kacey didn't bring it up with the mail this morning."

"It came by special courier, John." Brigid offered it, and the laird paused when he recognized the neat, economical handwriting of someone who was not a Clansman.

"Who in the..." He found his letter opener and put it to its gods-given purpose.

"That's lovely," Brigid observed, as he handed off a green bundle. Brigid unfolded it, and while John read the note that came with it, the maid examined the dress and its intricate lace patterns. "That's right and proper lovely. Kacey will adore it."

John grunted. "Nurem."

"What about them?" Brigid asked.

"King Erebos is sending an ambassador to oversee the King of Clans vote." John continued examining the letter. "This character wants to come take a peek at the wedding too, if there's time."

"Wonderful. More guests." She sounded quite frosty about that. "More cultural choices to make."

"I could always say no," John offered.

"Oh, no, that's not necessary." Brigid shook her head, folding the dress back up and putting it in the box. "I'll go take this to Miss Kacey right away, and then set about figuring how to please MacLoughlin, MacTavish, and Nurem all at once."

"If anyone can, Brigid, I trust it's you." John did his best to smile reassuringly. "This is going to go wonderfully."

"I'm going to throw those words in your face on the wedding day," Brigid warned. "With absolutely no respect for my mighty and powerful laird's title."

"Insubordinate woman." John scoffed as she started for the door. "If only I were an Ardwalian prelate instead of a reasonable, kind Highland laird. I'd have you whipped for rebellion!"

"Promises, promises!" And then Brigid was gone.

***

It was late. John made his way up the stairs in stillness, contemplating his aching bones with every step. Brigid was downstairs cleaning after dinner, and Corlane reading in the library. Where the girls and Soap had gotten off to, John hadn't a clue.

"Tomorrow," he murmured to himself, trying to come to terms with that reality. "Tomorrow, it's done. Then the election...and then..."

What came next was a difficult question. Kacey would never forgive him, and that sent pangs of sadness searing deep into John's heart. She was his world. Without her...

"I just don't understand."

John froze. He contemplated Kacey's bedroom door, hanging slightly ajar, and didn't dare move for a long moment. He listened to springs as someone shifted around on her bed.

"Uncle John must have his reasons," Ardyn soothed. John heard the jingling of a collar, and he could all too easily imagine Soap up on the bed with the girls, relishing in the attention they bestowed on him just like they had when he was a pup.

Not for the first time, John didn't have the heart to enforce Brigid's rules about dogs and beds.

"Of course you take his side," Kacey snapped. "You're just like him."

"There aren't sides," Ardyn said, and the blonde had a very calm way of speaking that belied her seventeen years. "He's doing what he thinks is best. Maybe he's right. Maybe he's not. Can you really ask him to do anything but what he thinks is right?"

"I just...I just healed Soap," Kacey moaned, sniffing. John studied the floor, trying to decide whether he could sneak past the door without disturbing the cousins. "I didn't think he would be this mad about it."

"I don't know that he's mad. He just wants you safe."

"And I just wanted to be able to be me and still have him love me."

John winced. He swallowed dryly, shamed and guilty, struggling with his temptations and demons. A part of him - a gentle, caring, loving part of him - wanted nothing more than to run downstairs, find Brigid, and set to writing a letter that would put this mess in the past. Whatever fallout would ensue would hardly matter compared to...

But no. He couldn't. Not when accounting for everything...he had to. He had to because he loved her, not in spite of how he did. There were reasons he'd made this decision.

So what could he do?

***

"I don't want to marry Angus." Kacey scratched Soap behind the ears, both of them curled up together. Contentedly, the dog nuzzled her feet, and Kacey leaned down to bury her face in his fur. "Angus is family, Ardyn. It'd be like marrying you."

"Sooner or later, you were going to be betrothed to someone," Ardyn pointed out. "Angus may be family, but he's better than being sold off to one of MacDonald's sons."

Kacey couldn't really argue that bit of logic. "But I always thought...I thought I'd find someone, and I'd talk to Dad and we'd work it out together from there. I thought I'd still have the choice." She pulled her head up to wipe away tears. "I didn't think healing Soap was going to cause all of this, or...or..."

"Or what?" Ardyn contemplated her from the foot of the bed, head tilted.

"...or something," Kacey finally growled. "I still would have done it. Someone had to. But I'd have figured out a plan first. Something to stop all this."

"I'm sorry, Kacey." Ardyn looked down. "I'm not much help."

"At least you're trying," the redhead soothed. "That's one up on everyone else." She hesitated. "And even if I don't want to be wed here and now...I'm still happy to have you as the maid of honor."

"I only hope you'll return the favor when it's my turn," Ardyn replied, to which Kacey nodded without a whit's hesitation.

"Girls?" That voice set Kacey's teeth on edge, as did the knock that followed. Soap's head popped up, ears alert, and Ardyn turned to the door.

"Uncle John?" she asked, as he poked his head in.

"Hello, Ardyn." Was it just Kacey, or did he look...why was there that paleness in his face? Was his voice off, or were her ears a mess like her eyes, as she tried to wipe away all her tears before he noticed them?

"Is something the matter?" Ardyn asked. John entered, a steaming cup of tea in hand.

"I just wondered...if I could talk to Kacey," he said after a moment. "Since it is the night before, and all that."

"Oh. Of course." Ardyn smiled. She gave her cousin a quick pat on the shoulder, which made Kacey smile. "I'll see you tomorrow, Kace."

"Good night." The redhead watched her go, but couldn't bear to look at her father, as he crossed over to the bed.

"Love?"

"Dad?" she managed to whisper. The tears wouldn't go away, no matter how hard she tried to suborn them. 

Quiet. She felt her father shifting his weight.

"I thought you might like some tea." Gently, he offered the cup. Kacey eyed it. The phrase peace offering might not have been one her father was comfortable with, but she recognized the concept in his manner. 

"Thank you." Still a hoarse whisper, but she took the cup, quietly breathing in its scent. She managed a sip, too, more to buy time without talking than anything else.

Silence dragged on, as rain began to patter the roof overhead like thousands of little arrows.