Secrets of the Heart – Suzan Tisdale

No one but her mum had ever called Onnleigh pretty. Thief, liar, wretched creature? Daughter of a drunkard and thief? Aye, she’d been called all those things, more times than she could count. But pretty? Nay, not pretty. “I dunnae lie to ye, lass,” Darwud MacCallen said as he sat next to the stream that helped feed Loch Moy. He was smiling at her as he played with a long blade of yellow grass. She stood in the stream trying to catch a fish for her supper. Though the water was frigid this time of year, fishing was a necessity, especially if she wanted to eat anything more than dried apples for her supper. He was being so kind to her, something she was not accustomed to, especially from members of her clan. An outcast since the age of nine—all because of her father’s love of drink and thieving—to have a young man like Darwud tell her how pretty he thought her, was more than unusual. “Stop yer jestin’, Darwud MacCallen,” she told him as she waded farther into the cold water. She’d been in the stream for at least half an hour and had yet to catch anything. Darwud was a distraction she wasn’t necessarily sure she wanted to go away. He laughed, his crooked smile showing less than perfect teeth. Darwud was not a handsome lad, but neither was he hideous or unappealing. “Ye wound me, lass!” he said as he crossed one ankle over the other and tossed the blade away.

“I would never lie to such a bonny thing as ye.” Bonny? Pretty? He’d been coming around now and again for a few weeks, offering to help with her garden, her chickens and milk cow. He’d even been kind enough to help mend the thatched roof of the croft she shared with her father. Standing in the center of the stream, with the hem of her dress tucked into her belt, she slipped an errant strand of hair behind her ear. Bonny. Pretty. How many times had he said such sweet things to her? A large trout swam between her ankles, its tail fin just brushing her left foot. Damnation! she thought to herself. If she didn’t focus on the task at hand, they’d be eating wild lettuce and berries for supper. “Why do ye say such things?” she asked, turning her attention back to the stream.

Before she knew it, he was wading into the water. “Let me help ye, lass.” Mayhap time had changed people. It had been years since she’d set foot anywhere near the MacCallen keep. Mayhap Darwud didn’t know about her father, his reputation as a drunkard and layabout. Aye, all they said about her da was true she’d not deny it. But what they said of her? Not one word of it the truth. She never told a lie, hadn’t stolen anything since she was nine, and worked very hard to keep home and hearth. She supposed it boiled down to what the Bible said about the sins of the father passing to the son and all that. Though she wasn’t Grueber’s son, she reckoned the good people of Clan MacCallen didn’t care to make the distinction.

Darwud was standing next to her now, bent over at the waist, hands cupped under the cool water. “Now watch and see how I do it.” She resisted the urge to scoff at him. With a father as unreliable as Grueber, she’d learned early in life how to fend for herself. That included fishing. Still, it was awfully kind of him to help. A warm late autumn breeze flittered in over the tree-lined bank, caressing her skin, and pulling more of her unruly red hair out of her braid. Though she was trying to catch a fish, her mind was anywhere but on the matter at hand. Moments passed by, with her heart happily dancing against her chest. Dare she believe that the rumors and stories had faded with time? Dare she hope that someone might take a fancy to her? “Ah ha!” Darwud cried out as he scooped a large trout out of the water and held it up for her to see.

It flipped and flopped, splashing little bits of water onto her nose. “That, my lass, is how it be done!” he exclaimed. Why she clapped her hands together, she couldn’t say. But she did. “That be a right good fish, Darwud!” she told him approvingly. “Da and I will give thanks to ye when we sit down to sup this night.” His expression changed from victorious to something far more mischievous. “Ye want the fish?” he asked. She furrowed her brow in confusion. “Aye, I do.

Did ye nae catch it fer me?” Embarrassment forced the color to creep up her neck, reddening her cheeks. “Mayhap I did, mayhap I dinnae,” he said as he headed toward the rocky bank. Onnleigh remained standing in the water, feeling rather foolish. “Now, I might be willin’ to give ye the fish, if ye were to give me a boon.” A boon? Not a coin to her name. She thought everyone knew that. “I have nae coin to give ye,” she told him, a little miffed that he’d expect her to pay for a fish that she could very well have caught on her own. Had he not been here distracting her, she would have caught more than enough by now. Ignoring him, she set about to do just that. “I dinnae ask fer coin,” he told her.

“I asked fer a boon.” He tossed the fish into her basket and waded back into the stream. “Well, I do nae ken what ye expect me to give ye. I be as poor as a field mouse.” She bent over, cupped her hands, and waited for another fish to swim by. Daft man. He was beside her again, laughing at her naiveté. “Well, I can think of somethin’ ye can give me that will be more valuable than gold.” Onnleigh pursed her lips and shook her head dismissively. What on earth do I have that anyone would think more valuable than gold? The man be tetched.

“I’ll catch me own fish, thank ye verra kindly.” A moment later, he was tenderly taking her hands in his. Too stunned to utter a word, Onnleigh stood staring into Darwud MacCallen’s dark brown eyes. “Onnleigh, why do ye think I’ve been visitin’ ye nearly every day?” he asked, his voice soft and low. In truth, she couldn’t rightly guess. No one ever came to visit her. “I dunnae,” she whispered, curious, nervous and excited all at once. He grinned, his lips a bit lopsided, before kissing the tips of her fingers. “I think I might like to marry ye, Onnleigh of Clan MacCallen.” Her heart bounced to her feet and back up again.

Marry? Me? “Now I know ye’re tetched,” she told him dismissively. She’d given up the hope of ever having a husband or family of her own long ago. She and her da could barely afford to eat, let alone come up with any kind of dowry. Add those things to their less than stellar reputations, and, well, one could see how she would arrive at such a conclusion. “Why would ye say that?” he asked, looking hurt. Uncertainty settled in and she didn’t rightly know how to answer the question. “Ye be a beautiful lass, Onnleigh. Ye’d make any man proud to call ye wife.” ’Twas laughable, wasn’t it? Mayhap, just mayhap, the clan had forgotten all the rotten things her father had done to them. Mayhap they finally realized it was Grueber who had stolen their chickens, their vegetables, and anything else he could carry away with little effort.

Mayhap they were ready to quit blaming her for his sins. Oh, the possibilities were endless! For the first time in more than a decade, she felt happy — nay, elated! Somehow she found her voice after swallowing hard twice. “Ye wish to marry me?” “I might,” he said playfully. “I have no dowry, Darwud,” she told him honestly. Her happy heart was beginning to pound against her breast. “I do nae care about a dowry,” he said, quite seriously. “’Tis ye I desire.” “Ye do?” He nodded twice, his dark brown eyes twinkling in the afternoon sun. “Ye dunnae jest?” she asked softly. Inner doubt was having an awful battle with her newfound hope and excitement.

“Nay, I dunnae jest. I want ye.” For the first time in her life, Onnleigh ingen Grueber of Clan MacCallen, felt beautiful, important, and special, all because of Darwud. Her excitement won out, beating down an inner voice that warned she should consider proceeding with a good deal of caution. ’Twas her first kiss, a wee bit awkward, but since she had nothing to compare it to, she thought it a most wonderful, sweet kiss. His lips felt warm against her own, her excitement building, soaring to never before experienced heights. Someone wanted her, Onnleigh, the thief’s daughter. Darwud cared not about her father’s reputation, cared not that she didn’t have a dowry or a possession of her own to bring into the marriage. ’Twas her he wanted. On her tiptoes, she clasped her hands behind his neck and kissed him back.

He wants to marry me. He thinks me bonny. He wants to marry me. One thing led to another, and before she knew what was happening, she was giving in to passions and desires she’d never felt before. Lying atop an old worn blanket on the rocky banks of the wide stream, Onnleigh became a woman in every sense of the word. It hadn’t taken as long as she might have expected, but it didn’t matter. Darwud MacCallen wanted to marry her. He might just even love her.

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