Alexander looked to where his brother was directing his attention and his breath hitched. His bride-to-be was making her way slowly, steadily, down the castle wall with remarkable agility. She seemed to know instinctively where the footholds lay. If he hadn’t witnessed it with his own eyes, he wouldn’t have believed it possible. She was now clambering deftly down the last few feet. As impressed as he was by the confident way she was making her descent, his admiration was outweighed by fury with her for risking her safety in that way. As much as he hated to admit it, he was also undeniably aroused by the sight of her rounded buttocks in the clinging leather of the hose she wore. She had some audacity climbing out of a window in a man’s clothing. That was something else to take her to task for.
Passing his torch to Iain, he moved silently toward Ailis. He didn’t want to spook her in case she lost her grip on the rope and fell. As she came within his reach, he grabbed her by the waist and swung her over his shoulder. She was a slight wee thing, but she had quite the set of lungs on her. The screech of protest she let out almost deafened him.
“Let me go, you son of a whore!” Ailis spat.
“Denigrate me all you like, but never drag my mother into it,” Alexander warned her.
“Oh, go to hell, you bastard!”
In response to her cursing, he gave her bottom a quick swat.
“Hold your tongue if you know what’s good for you,” Alexander advised in a sharp tone as he strode toward the west tower.
“Put me down,” Ailis demanded. “Where do you think you’re taking me?”
“Somewhere private.” Alexander took a deep breath to help get his temper under control. “You, young lady, are about to get your bottom blistered.”
As Alexander carried her through the courtyard, Ailis fought for all she was worth. Like a trapped wildcat, she hissed and spat as she kicked out and scratched at Alexander’s shoulders, trying to force him to release her from his tight hold. She struggled furiously as he took her past several of his men, who looked on with obvious amusement as she made a futile attempt to free herself. He brought her back into the tower she’d only just escaped from and made his way up the steps. As they encountered Niall and Margaret making their way down the narrow staircase, Alexander moved to one side to let them pass. They were closely followed by Adam de Moray, who wore a knowing smirk on his face. Ailis scowled at him. Clearly, her judgement that he was the nice de Moray sibling was wrong.
“Niall, help me,” Ailis begged as he and Margaret squeezed past. She barely had time to register the look of reproach on the other woman’s face. “Please, he’s going to beat me.”
“Aye, lass, I imagine he is,” Niall said as Alexander started off up the winding stairs once more. “And if you try something like that again, I’ll cut him a switch myself.”
Ailis snorted in disgust. Why did the men always stick together like that? Niall’s loyalty should lie first and foremost with her. They were kin, after all. As Alexander carried her onward, she closed her eyes tight and sent up a silent prayer that she would survive whatever punishment he had in mind for her. She had no idea what a man like him might be capable of when he was in such a temper as he appeared to be in right now. Regardless of the risk, she had no intention of making it easy for him to carry out his threat to blister her backside.
When they reached the third floor, he took her into her own bedchamber and slammed the door behind him. He set her down and, for the longest time, he just stared at her, his eyes blazing. Seeing how furious he was, Ailis backed away. For several minutes, neither of them said a word. They simply stood there, weighing each other up. Alexander studied her like a hunter might examine his prey. As he took several deep breaths, his chest rose and fell slowly. It seemed to calm him a little.
“Take off those leggings,” he said in a measured tone as he pointed to the tight, boyish garment she wore, “and bend over the bed.”
There was no way in hell she was going to do that. Ailis folded her arms across her chest and glared at him. As he removed the thick, brown leather belt from around his waist and took off his plaid, so he was left in only his tunic and hose, Ailis began to cry. The clear threat as he slapped the belt against his hand terrified her. The spanking she’d already endured was one thing—it had not been completely unpleasant, after all—but the prospect of being walloped with that belt was quite another.
“You need to obey my commands, Ailis,” Alexander said sternly. “You’ve a well-deserved punishment coming to you. Climbing down the walls like that could have got you killed. It is my duty to see to it that you never try anything so foolish again.”
Ailis gulped loudly. It sounded as though he intended to inflict a punishment on her that she would not soon forget. Alexander doubled the belt over and pulled the two ends tight. The loud crack of the leather snapping seemed to ricochet off the stone walls. The noise it made horrified Ailis. She started to move back toward the far corner of the room. The reckless bravado that had ruled her actions since Alexander arrived at the castle disintegrated completely and she started to shudder.
“Please,” she begged, getting down on her knees and looking up at Alexander with pleading eyes. “Please don’t hurt me. I’m sorry.”
“Easy enough to say you’re sorry, lass,” Alexander said, “but I need you to mean it. You’ve a lesson to learn here.”
“But I won’t do anything like that again,” Ailis protested. “I swear it. Please don’t hurt me.”
Alexander sighed and took a seat on the bed, beckoning for her to come to him. Ailis eyed his outstretched hand with suspicion. He was angry, that was apparent, so this conciliatory gesture was confusing. She wondered whether it was a trap. She got to her feet and took a step back, coming up against the wall. There was nowhere to run.
“Come on, lass, I just want to talk to you,” he coaxed, “for now.”
Ailis stayed where she was. Alexander placed the belt he still held in his other hand down on the bed and nodded encouragingly to her. There seemed to be no immediate danger, yet Ailis could not bring herself to move.
“Quickly now, lass,” he urged her, although he sounded a little irritated now. She could see that he was straining against a desire to get up and seize her by the shoulders to give her a good shake. “I’m not in the habit of telling a woman what I want from her more than once.”
Arrogant swine! He was used to everyone jumping to attention when he spoke, but Ailis was not about to do that. Dragging her feet to demonstrate her reluctance, Ailis walked slowly toward him. She could see the impatience in the twist of his lips, the flaring of his nostrils. Her eyes never left him as she approached. He looked as though he was in control of himself, but that could change at any moment and she had to be prepared to run. As she got closer to him, he suddenly grabbed hold of her wrist, startling her. His grasp was firm, but not painful as he pulled her down onto the bed next to him. Ailis gasped as her bottom, already chafing from her spanking, hit the straw-filled mattress. Her heart pounded wildly as she waited for Alexander to do something but, rather than forcing himself on her as she’d feared he might, he turned to speak to her.
“What the devil were you thinking when you went out that window?”
Ailis shrugged her shoulders and stared down at the floor. How could he not know why she’d tried such a desperate act to make her escape? Did he not realize how scared she was to give herself to a man like him, a man who would end up dominating her completely? Alexander put a finger beneath her chin and tilted her face toward him, so she had no option but to meet his searching gaze.
“Well?” he prompted.
It was clear from the implacable expression on his face that he was not going to allow her to refuse to answer.
“I wanted to get away,” Ailis said.
“That’s obvious,” Alexander replied, “but what from?”
Was the man completely daft? Ailis looked at him with incredulity.
“From you, of course,” Ailis said. She shook her head, freeing her chin from his grasp.
Alexander sighed heavily once more. There was a look in his eye that Ailis could not read.
“Am I such a terrible prospect for a husband?” he asked.
“Yes, you unfeeling brute, of course you are!” Ailis cried out. When she paused to think about it, though, he’d done nothing so terrible it couldn’t be forgiven—yet. She knew that much of the fault for the poor start they’d got off to lay with her. She’d been rude and then she’d acted impetuously, putting herself in grave danger. But, there was no way she was going to admit it. Placing all the blame on this interloper’s shoulders seemed easier than confronting the fact she’d made stupid decisions.
“You know, I have taken part in many battles,” Alexander told her, his tone softer now, “but I didn’t truly understand what fear was until I saw you coming down that wall.”
“You were worried for me?” Ailis could not conceal her surprise.
“Aye, is that so strange? We’re to be wed, after all,” he replied. “Is it not natural I should wish to keep you from harm?”
Ailis turned away from him and tried to gather her thoughts. Did he care for her? It seemed unlikely, given that they’d only just met, and things had not been amicable between them so far. No, he was only concerned that his prize might slip through his fingers. Her jaw clenched as she looked back at him, her eyes flashing with indignation.
“Keep me from harm?” Her voice was laced with vitriol. “The only harm that’s come to me so far has been at your hand.”
Ailis glared at him in disbelief. Had he somehow forgotten what he’d done to her? Perhaps he did not view punishing her as harmful.
“You spanked me the moment you arrived in my home and now you’re planning to thrash me with your belt,” she said angrily.
“Aye, because you keep inviting punishment.” He held a hand up, silencing the objection she was about to make. “You’ve earned yourself a belting and that is what I’m going to give you.”
“And if I refuse to go along with this?” Ailis stood up and stepped away from the bed.
“It is not up for discussion, Ailis.” he told her. “If you don’t cooperate, I will strip you naked, tie you to the bedpost, and invite my brothers in here to witness your chastisement. Is that what you want?”
Ailis stared at Alexander, scarcely able to believe he would suggest something so outrageous. He would allow others to see her bared and punished? Her mouth flapped open and shut as she tried to decide if he would actually do such a thing. The hard set of his jaw, the narrowing of his eyes told her he was serious. Still, despite the risk, Ailis could not simply give in. She had her pride, after all. Straightening her back so she stood at her full height of five foot two, she summoned up as much determination as she could and tried to walk past him. Before she could even process what was happening, Alexander rose, took hold of her waist, and threw her face down on the bed. A firm hand pressed between her shoulders, preventing her from freeing herself.
“Stay put if you know what’s good for you,” Alexander warned her as he took his hand away.
Ailis did as she was told. Alexander moved her feet apart with a gentle kick and then took hold of her hips. He positioned her, so she was lying on the bed, her bottom raised high. To her relief, he made no move to take off the tunic she wore, but he did lift it up around her waist. Then he lowered her tight-fitting hose, so she was completely exposed to him. Even though she’d already been bared to him when he spanked her before, she felt a blush rising to her cheeks. Somehow, she felt more humiliated in this position with him looking down on her. She had scarcely acknowledged how vulnerable she felt or adjusted to the chill in the air on her naked skin when the belt landed for the first time. It instantly heated her already sensitized flesh.
The sting was much more intense than she’d experienced when he spanked her with his hand. Tears pricked her eyes, but she blinked them away knowing that if she started crying now she might never stop. As she gulped in several mouthfuls of air, she was aware of Alexander hovering behind her. She knew he was not finished, but he seemed to be waiting for something. He did not say a word, did not touch her, so she remained completely still. She was sure that this was a test to see if he now had her compliance. He did. Having tasted the vicious bite of the leather on her poor, tender bottom, she had no intention of making things worse for herself than they had to be. Despite her instinct to run, she was going to stay exactly where she was.
“Good girl,” Alexander said. “Now, I want you to hold that position. Do you hear me, Ailis?”
“Aye, my lord.” Her tone was baleful.
As the belt fell again and again, Ailis could not hold back the tears. The sensation was different after the first couple of strokes. The sting was gone but the blows felt heavier. She imagined that by now her bottom would be covered with unsightly red welts. Her skin felt like it was on fire and the heat radiating across her small, rounded buttocks was hard to bear. She shifted slightly, clenching and then releasing the muscles in her nether regions but nothing helped to ease the growing discomfort. In fact, the way she moved was setting off that little throb of arousal again, blurring the line between pain and pleasure.
“Owwww!” she screamed as the belt fell again, striking a fresh spot across the tops of her thighs. “Stop, please.”
“We’ve barely started,” Alexander said, “but we can stop, if you insist.”
Ailis looked over her shoulder at him, the tears in her eyes making him appear all blurry. She sensed that there was some hidden trick in his words.
“But we will have to start over after the marriage rites have been performed,” Alexander said.
Ailis blew out a breath. She’d known that there would be a catch, but that was worse than she’d expected. She shook her head and returned to the position he’d put her in. Her bottom smarted and her eyes stung from all her tears, but she couldn’t bear the thought of continuing this punishment later.
“No need to stop, my lord,” Ailis said shakily. No matter how bad this was, she could survive it. She had to.
Alexander smiled to himself as at last she showed some sense. Despite her idiotic attempt to escape from him and her insolent behavior, he suspected that she wasn’t a fool. There was a sparkling intelligence in those emerald green eyes of hers that he found incredibly appealing. Given the right conditions, she would be an asset to him. She could help him get to know these lands and the people who lived and worked on them. Although he would soon let everyone know he was now master here, the transition of power would be made more smoothly if he had her cooperation. From what he had heard, the clan looked to Ailis for guidance now that her father and brother were gone. They respected her. Liked her. With Ailis at his side, they would accept his authority more readily. He just had to make sure that she knew, without a shadow of a doubt, who was in charge around here.
As she settled herself on the bed, ready to continue the punishment, he made a careful study of her bottom. The pretty, peachy skin was marked with vivid red stripes. There was no doubt that she was hurting. He could tell from the way she shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she attempted to find relief that she was in discomfort. She whimpered as she moved, but he could tell that her suffering was not from pain alone. His little bride-to-be was unmistakably aroused. A glistening trickle of moisture ran down the inside of her thigh and he could smell the heady aroma of womanly desire. The poor lass probably had no idea what was happening to her, but he found it interesting. It seemed she was not averse to a little harsh discipline.
“Hold still now, lass,” he cautioned her.
Alexander drew the belt back and brought it down across her left buttock. Ailis yelped loudly. Her hands scrabbled at the fur cover that adorned her bed as she tried to find something to cling onto. He struck her twice more, this time hitting the tops of her thighs. She moaned long and low and then wriggled, pressing herself forward against the bed as though trying to find relief from an agony that came from deep inside. The way her body writhed against the bed made his cock stiffen and he longed to plunge it into her sweet little pussy. The image of fucking her from behind played vividly in his head. He had to grit his teeth as he struggled to get a hold of himself.
“Two more,” he announced, judging that she had almost reached the limits of her endurance. Her legs shook, and he knew she was growing tired.
A weary groan escaped Ailis, but she made no attempt to dissuade him from administering the last strokes. She danced around on her toes and, when she settled, her legs were even farther apart. Her more open stance gave him a better glimpse of the pretty pink pussy he would claim as his own before the night was out and he swallowed hard at the sight of her so open and ready. Knowing he could not act upon his urges until after their vows were exchanged, he drew back his arm and, with a loud thwap, struck her with the belt once more. She squealed, but the noise was quieter than before. She must be really hurting now because, for the first time, she reached back to try to rub the ache away.
“Hands on the bed,” Alexander said sternly. If she was going to find any measure of comfort, it would come from him. “There is only one more.”
Ailis withdrew her hand. Her face was buried in the fur bedcover now, so he couldn’t see her tears, but he knew from the vigorous shaking of her shoulders that she was crying in earnest. It moved him to see her so upset, but it did not deter him from his task. He had never flinched from disciplining a woman and he wasn’t about to soften his stance because of a few tears. She could have killed herself and she had to learn that when it came to her safety he would not hesitate to do whatever it took to ensure that she did not put herself at risk.
He swung the belt once more, with greater force this final time. The leather strip landed with a crack across the full width of her bottom. She raised her head, letting out a silent scream. Then she collapsed forward, onto the bed. She curled her body in on itself as though trying to hide from the world. Alexander stood back and watched for a moment as she sobbed pitifully. He was a hard man, with no kind words to offer a distraught woman but, realizing she needed some tenderness, he pulled her up off the bed and into his arms. Stroking her hair back from her face, he let her cry until whatever pain and sorrow it was that she felt was purged. When she seemed to have composed herself, he stepped back, so he could see the expression she wore. It was one of genuine contrition.
“You have learned your lesson, Ailis?”
“Aye, my lord,” she sniffed in response.
There was an achingly mournful look on her face that almost cracked Alexander’s tough exterior. Almost.
“Good,” he said, “then you need to dress. It is growing late, and our families expect a wedding to take place tonight.”
Ailis nodded, her wide eyes following him as he went to the large trunk at the end of the bed where he assumed her clothing was kept. He flung open the lid to be greeted by a murky sea of fabric in the drabbest shades of grey and brown. Rather than being the wardrobe of a great lady, her clothes looked like the rags worn by a peasant.
“These are your clothes in here?” he asked, his eyebrows knitting together to show his confusion.
“Aye, my lord.”
Alexander looked once more at the dismal woolen gowns. Where was all the finery that befitted the daughter of a clan chief? Her sister-by-marriage had been wearing the most luxurious velvet. At her waist, there had hung a girdle of gold. In fact, now that he thought about it, the other woman, Margaret, had also been dressed in a far richer fashion than Ailis and his understanding was that she was a mere companion to the MacDonnell women. He couldn’t believe that this was all the clothing Ailis owned. The MacDonnell lands were rich and fertile, their harvests abundant. The clan was wealthy and its laird powerful. So, it seemed, that Ailis’ father had indeed been neglectful of his only daughter’s needs. Alexander resolved to do something to remedy her sparse wardrobe immediately. First thing in the morning, he would send for the finest French silks to have more fitting gowns made for her.
With no other option available, he held up the most acceptable garment he could find, a blue surcote with gold embroidery on its sleeves.
“This is the best you have?”
Ailis nodded. “Aye, it was my mother’s.”
Alexander felt a pang of regret that he may have sounded as though he was sneering at the threadbare garment.
“But there’s no kirtle to match it,” she added ruefully.
“Kirtle?” Truly, women’s clothing was a mystery to Alexander. All he knew was that they tended to wear too much of the damned stuff.
“Yes, to wear beneath it,” Ailis said.
“I see.” Alexander shook his head. This really would not do. He was a wealthy man, a member of the powerful de Moray family who were counted amongst the king’s closest allies. His wife could not be seen at court in clothes that the lowliest kitchen maid would be ashamed to wear. “Is there nothing else you can put on?”
“I suppose,” Ailis bit her lip, looking quite unsure of herself, “I could wear a simple white chemise under the surcote. Edane will disapprove, no doubt, but it might not look so bad.”
“A white chemise,” Alexander repeated as he rummaged in the trunk. He found a clean-looking white undershirt and passed it to Ailis along with the surcote. Ailis took the garments from him and held them close to her chest as she fixed him with an expectant look.
“Put them on,” Alexander instructed curtly when she made no move to dress.
Ailis raked her teeth over her bottom lip.
“Will you turn away?” she asked.
“No.” Alexander’s response was firm. “I am about to become your husband. You must accustom yourself to being unclothed in my presence.”
Ailis said nothing, but he could tell she wasn’t happy. He watched as she pulled the tunic off over her head. Her skin was pale and unblemished, but he barely had time to admire the swell of her milky white breasts, the curve of her hips, before she slipped on the linen undershirt. She put the surcote on over it and fastened it quickly before running her fingers through her long, dark hair. She looked incredible and he hoped that she would not cover her hair once they were married as women tended to do once they were no longer maidens.
“Beautiful,” he said as she turned to him. From the way she blushed and looked to the floor, he could tell that she was unused to compliments. It seemed almost a crime that nobody had praised her as she deserved before now. Alexander smiled and held his hand out to her. “Come now, Ailis, it is time we were wed.”
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