Wager of the Heart – Suzan Tisdale

Graham Keith’s father had tried to instill in his children a sense of pride, of right versus wrong, as well as a good deal of common sense. All but one of his seven children—his third born son, Graham—had managed to grow up holding dear those strong and important senses and beliefs. All save for him had grown to be fine, upstanding members of society. Somewhere along Graham’s aimless life, however, any pride he had ever possessed had disappeared, the lines of right versus wrong blurred, and common sense no longer existed. Long gone was the proud, duty-bound highland warrior he had once been. Now, he was naught more than a ne’er do-well without a sense of direction. Drunk more often than not, he led a purposeless life. There were, however, rare occasions when he could hear his father’s voice. That big booming voice warning him against something, or worse yet, reminding him just who he was. Ye be a Keith, Waldon would say. Ne’er bring shame to that name, son. Ne’er bring shame to that name. On those annoying occasions when he heard his father’s voice as plain as if he were sitting right next to him, Graham would immediately proceed to the nearest inn or tavern and consume vast amounts of ale or whisky. He would drink until he drowned out any memories from his past. And that is how he came to be in this tiny inn, in some village whose name he couldn’t now recall.

Drunk and in an exciting game of chance: Bones. Inebriated to the point he could not remember the names of the men he was playing against. So drunk was he that he couldn’t have found his arse with both hands. But he was winning and that was all that mattered. At some point during the night, he realized all but one of the men had left the game. Now, ’twas just Graham and some swarthy looking bloke. It could have been the drink or the poorly lit tavern that gave the stranger that saturnine look. Graham couldn’t be certain; neither did he care. “Bah!” the man with the dark hair and even darker eyes exclaimed. “Ye have beaten me again!” With great care and unsteady hands, Graham pulled his winnings across the table toward his chest.

He couldn’t have counted how much coin was in the pile if someone had put a dirk to his throat. But it didn’t matter. It looked like a good deal of coin. “How ’bout we play double or nothin’?” the dark-eyed man said. Graham was drunk but not so drunk that he could not see the man’s empty purse sitting on the table. “Ye appear to be out of coin,” Graham drawled before taking another swig of ale. ’Twas difficult getting the mug to his lips, for the world seemed to spin, causing the liquid to slosh over the rim. The man studied him closely for a brief moment. “Aye, ’tis true, I be all out of coin.” Graham swayed in his chair ever so slightly.

“How can ye double nothin’?” he asked with a blurry-eyed stare before breaking into a fit of laughter. The man apparently found it amusing as well, for he laughed along with his opponent. After a time, the stranger said, “I have somethin’ far more valuable than coin.” For the life of him, Graham could not think of anything more valuable than coin. Coin was what kept a roof over your head and food in your belly. It also afforded fine drink and women of loose morals. Coin and drink were the answer to all of life’s problems. However, his interest was piqued. “Go on with ye,” he said, his speech slurred. The man planted his hands on the table and leaned in as if sharing some great secret.

After taking a glance at their surroundings, he decided ’twas safe to proceed. “Would ye take a chance on a lass?” Confused, Graham asked for clarification. “Och! She be nae much to look at,” the man began in a whisper. “And she cannae cook to save her soul from the devil.” The man wasn’t doing much to entice Graham into the gamble. “Who be this homely creature who cannae cook?” Apparently, his cohort in bones hadn’t heard the question. “She be stubborn and mouthy as well,” he said, looking most serious. “But if the right man came along, I imagine he could break that unearthly spirit of hers.” Graham was too drunk to be bothered by the man’s insults toward the lass in question. Were he a principled fellow, one who still maintained a modicum of decency— the man he used to be—he might have defended the lass’s honor.

But he was no longer an honorable man. The stranger took Graham’s silence to mean he agreed to the wager. He smiled, picked up the bones, and rolled them across the table. “Bloody hell, ye won again!” he declared loudly. Graham blinked in confusion. He hadn’t expressed agreement, had he? The man had grabbed up the bones so quickly, Graham was unable to see just what he had rolled that declared him the loser. Believing it not more than a jest, Graham shook his head and ordered another mug of ale by shouting across the room at the bar wench. When he looked back, the man had left the table. Too drunk to care or think clearly, Graham waved like a simpleton as the dark-eyed ne’er-do-well who paused at the door and glanced back. The last thing Graham remembered was thinking, why does he look happy to have lost? G C H A P T E R 2 raham had no recollection of how he’d gotten to his room, let alone into the too small bed.

But that is where he found himself the next morn. The sun shone in through the only window, burning his eyes even though they were tightly shut. He cursed loudly at the invasion, threw something in its general direction, and rolled over to his stomach. As he drifted back to sleep, he thought he heard a small voice giggle, but shoved the notion away with the belief ’twas naught more than drunken imagination. Later, but how much later wasn’t clear, for he was still feeling rather drunk, he woke to discover a priest standing over him. For inexplicable reasons, the sight of the squat man in robes, holding a cross in one hand and a bible in the other, did not disturb him. Oddly enough, he felt a strange sense of peace. I must be dyin’, Graham thought. ’Tis no less than ye deserve, ye drunken cur. There was a woman who stood next to the short, bald man.

A comely lass, with hair a color somewhere between autumn wheat and fine whisky. Her eyes were the deepest, most brilliant of blues and held a look of concern that solidified his assessment of impending death. Creamy skin, lips the color of a pink rose in springtime, and her perfectly straight nose were enough to make any man ache with need. His first inclination was to pull her into his bed and take a lifetime to explore every glorious curve of her body. Och! Even in death ye be thinkin’ of sinnin’. Ye’re goin’ straight to hell, Graham Keith. Straight. To. Hell. With what he assumed were the last rites given, he closed his eyes and felt his lips curve into a smile.

Take me now, God. I be ready for whatever fate ye have in store for me. The sound of his own snoring woke him some time later. He chanced opening his eyes briefly, only to gauge the time of day. Sitting on a stool next to his bed was the comely lass from earlier. Those blue eyes, soft and bright, stared at him as if he were a mysterious object that had just fallen from the sky. I must still be drunk, he mused before closing his sleepy eyes and nodding back to sleep. For the first time in many years, Graham Keith dreamt. He dreamt of his youth, his family and home, and of the special glen where he had played as a child. Back then, there had been no doubt at all that he was loved and cherished.

His mother always looked upon with him adoring eyes and a proud smile. His father, not necessarily a hard man, did not find it as easy or as natural to show his affections for his children. Still, his children knew he loved them, for his mother often told them so. Yer da loves ye, verra much, she would tell them with much frequency. ’Twas as if she worried they might forget or someday doubt the fact. He just finds it difficult to give ye the words. Lost in his dream of those days long ago, he felt himself once again yearning for something more than the life he’d been living. Taken back to the time he was naught more than twelve summers, he was standing in the magnificent—and some believed magical—glen. Tall green grass swayed in the summer breeze and sparkled from the afternoon light. In a few months, the heather would bloom giving the place an even more beautiful and ethereal glow.

As if they were some kind of ancient, magical guards, tall, thick trees surrounded the glen. A river filled with fat trout twisted through it. ’Twas his favorite place in the world back then. Graham always felt safe and protected there. Lying on his back in the tall summer grass, he closed his eyes and swore he could feel the earth moving. He made a few wishes that blissful summer day: to grow up to be as big and strong as his father and to have a wife as loving and as beautiful as his mum. I want to never leave this place. I want to live here forever and watch my own children play in the glen. A sense of sadness filled his heart, so profound and intense he could feel tears coming to his eyes even as he slept. Home.

He missed it. He missed his parents, his brothers and sisters. He missed his people and the life he used to have there. But he had made far too many mistakes to ever go back. One of those mistakes had cost the lives of two innocent people. Even though he’d received forgiveness during his last rites, he knew he was unworthy of it. There were some things that could never be forgiven. WHEN GRAHAM WOKE NEXT, he was quite certain he had been sent straight to hell. His head pounded ferociously, his stomach churned incessantly, and his mouth felt as though it had been stuffed with wool. Remembering the priest, the comely lass, and the last rites, he shut his eyes tightly, afraid to see what hell really looked like.

’Twas not as hot as he’d been taught as a lad. ’Twas downright chilly. The only sounds he heard was the pounding in his skull and a slight shuffle coming from somewhere nearby. It sounded vaguely familiar, like the rustling of a woman’s skirts. He couldn’t look. Simply couldn’t. So, he lay there like the lout that he was and waited. Moments later he heard a slight creak, a muffled murmur of some sort, which was quickly followed by a woman’s voice. Though he was quite certain she spoke in naught but a whisper, his head hurt so badly, it sounded as loud as the gonging of church bells. Something smelled foul yet familiar.

It took only a moment to realize he was smelling himself: sweat and ale. Thank God yer mum cannae see ye now, he thought. With one arm tossed over his eyes, he tried to shut out the noises. He heard a man shouting, the whinny of a horse, birds chirping, and children’s laughter. They all seemed to come from a great distance. Sweat broke out on his brow so he moved his hand to his side, keeping his eyes shut. Ye’re a grown man for the sake of Christ! Ye’ve been sent to hell for all yer misdeeds. Be a man and look at what ye have wrought upon yerself. Willing his stomach to settle, he took in a deep breath and slowly, ever so slowly, opened his eyes. The ceiling overhead looked oddly reminiscent of the room he had rented at the tavern.

Nay, that cannae be, he thought. He felt warm hands under his neck, helping him to sit. “Here, drink this.” “Ye need nae shout,” he groused as he sat up, still quite afraid to look at his eternal damnation. A cup was put to his lips and he drank. ’Twas a foul smelling and even fouler tasting concoction. This is yer eternal damnation, he thought to himself. Forced to drink liquid shite for the rest of yer life. “’Twill help with the ache in yer head,” came the woman’s voice once again. “Bloody hell, my head hurts,” he mused to no one in particular.

Closing his eyes once again he fell back against the pillow. Assuming the ache was another form of eternal punishment, he felt no better. The room began to spin. “Mum, the man said a bad word,” came a small voice from across the room. GRAHAM’S EYES sprang open at the sound of the small voice. The room was filled with children. And the comely lass was standing in front of them, those blue eyes once again filled with confusion. To his feet he jumped, like a bolt from a crossbow. He regretted moving so quickly, for it made the pounding in his skull worsen. “Who in the bloody hell are ye?” Shouting only intensified the ache in his head.

His stomach continued to churn. “The man said a bad word again,” the little boy repeated. Hiding next to him were two little girls who very much resembled the pretty lass. “Haud yer wheesht,” the woman reprimanded the lad. Graham took note of a small child, mayhap only a year old, hanging in a sling on the woman’s back. Children everywhere. True, there were only four of the wee beasties, but to Graham’s way of thinking, that was four too many. This is hell. That be the only explanation. Swallowing hard, Graham said, “Again I ask who ye are.

” The pretty woman took a step forward before answering. “I’m Leelah, yer wife.” Aye, I be in hell. WİFE? Hearing that simple word brought forth an involuntary shudder. All too soon he realized he wasn’t in hell. Hell didn’t hurt this much, and it certainly couldn’t be filled with children and beautiful women, could it? Nay, this wasn’t hell. How bloody drunk did I get last night? Willing his nerves to settle, Graham pulled his shoulders back. “Wife?” He scoffed at the idea. “I suppose next ye will be tellin’ me those, those,” he pointed at the children, “bein’s belong to me as well?” Giving the matter some thought, the woman nodded. “I suppose legally they do.

” “Legally?” Graham asked as his head began to spin again. Blurry memories from the night before crept into his mind, making him feel even more ill. Bones. I was playin’ bones. “They be nae yers by blood, but since we are now husband and wife, they legally be yers I would think, accordin’ to the laws of Scotia.” Graham didn’t like how she kept tossing the word ‘legally’ and ‘laws’ around. God’s teeth, his head hurt. He may not be dead and may not have been sent to the burning afterworld, but ’twas hell all the same. “I fear ye are mistaken, my lady. We are nae married.

” His attempt at sounding fierce didn’t work, for she didn’t back away. She stood firm and resolute. Tilting her head ever so slightly, she said, “M’laird, we are. We were married just this morn, by Father Edgar.” He swallowed hard. “I thought he was givin’ me last rites,” he muttered. She shook her head slowly. Her expression resembled a look of pity one sometimes gives to those who are less fortunate or less intelligent. “Nay, m’laird. ’Twas our weddin’.

I dunnae ken how ye could mistake a weddin’ for last rites.” “I thought I was bloody dyin’.” His words were sharp and clipped, his upset plainly evidenced by the fierce glower he was sending her way. “I dunnae ken why ye’re so angry,” she remarked. “’Tis only temporary.” Bleary-eyed, Graham blinked. “Temporary?” “Aye.” He waited for further explanation but soon realized none would be forthcoming any time soon. “Would ye care to elaborate?” “Jamie, take yer sisters and brother into the hallway,” she said over her shoulder. She removed the babe from the sling and handed him to the oldest child.

Waiting in strained silence, neither Graham nor Leelah uttered a word until the door closed softly behind the brood of children. Before Graham could launch into the thousand and one reasons why they were not, nor should they ever be, married, the beautiful woman stepped forward. She was close enough to touch, to kiss, to breathe in her scent. Clean and fresh, with just a hint of lavender, it filled his senses. Feeling the dangerous pull, Graham stood taller and fought against the odd attraction with the little strength he had left. Looking into her eyes, he saw something he didn’t like. Hurt. “I be Leelah MacDonald, widow for more than a year now, m’laird. Me husband John, God rest his soul,” she made the sign of the cross and bowed her head for the briefest of moments, “died and left us with naught but a wee farm. I could nae take care of the farm and four wee bairns on me own.

” Graham waited as patiently as he could under the circumstance, for her to tell her tale. “His brother Gerold, the man ye won me from last night—” “I did not win ye,” he interjected. Bloody bones! “Ye are nae chattel.” Suddenly, he remembered the wager, the roll of the dice, and Gerold happily declaring Graham had won. Mistakenly, he had believed ’twas all a jest. “Ye cannae own a person.” Ignoring his comment, she continued to explain her current situation. “Gerold is nae a kind man. He came to live on my farm, to help he said. But ’twas nae help he wanted to offer.

” Graham could only imagine the kind of help to which she was referring. “I want only to go home, m’laird. Back to me clan. I cannae do it on me own. I need yer help. As soon as ye get us home, ye can have this marriage annulled.”

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