His little sister, Primrose, arched an eyebrow and planted her fists on her hips in an uncanny echo of their mother. “You expect me to believe you didn’t do that?”
“Pfft. What for? Stringing them up there serves no purpose other than embarrassing Gillie for wearing red lace panties under her sensible skirts. I’m a gentleman, and this juvenile behavior is beneath me.”
“Right.” Primrose snorted. “You’d rather wrap them up to avoid having to buy her a Naming Day present.”
“Absolutely.” Owen flashed his most charming smile. “Besides, if I was going to steal her underwear, I’d take the blue ones. They’re much prettier.”
She gasped and covered her mouth. “You’ve seen her other undies?”
Aware he’d stepped in something, Owen’s smile faltered. “I’ve, ah, seen Jack out with the laundry.”
“You liar. I’m telling Mom.” Before he could grab her, Primrose hiked up her skirts and sprinted away.
“Crap.” By nightfall, he’d be Gillie’s bed boy. Everyone would think he’d strung up her undies, and Matron Marta would string him up. Launching into action, he sprinted around the nearby house and dove into the cellar. He darted past the roots, cheeses, and smoked meats of Gillie’s household and resisted the urge to grab a snack. In the back, he nabbed a crate and dragged it to a precise spot.
The crate allowed him to reach the five foot ceiling. More importantly, it allowed him to reach the hidden depression in the wood that caused the trapdoor to click open. He listened carefully, heard nothing, and let it fall open. Pushing aside the rug covering the hole, he grabbed the sides and jumped to haul himself up into Gillie’s bedroom.
On this side, the trap door had a recessed handle he used to pull it back up and lock it into place. He replaced the rug and tiptoed to the closed door. Beyond it, he heard Gillie’s high-pitched voice railing about the state of her underwear. Another voice, probably belonging to one of her fathers, tried to calm her down. Owen caught something about a “joke.”
Angry thumps thundered to the door. As Owen jumped to safety, the door caught him and threw him against the wall with a fresh bruise in his gut from the knob. His head hit hard enough to make him see stars.
“Owen,” Gillie growled. “I knew it.” She drew in a breath he thought she might use to call for her father.
“No,” he grunted. “Wait. Wasn’t me. I swear.” Rubbing his head, he tasted bile.
“Sure. I believe you.” She slammed the door shut and grabbed the front of his shirt.
The room spun. “Ugh, please don’t. I’m going to throw up.”
Shoving him to the floor, she crossed her arms and glared at him. “I ought to tell my mother about you.”
He rolled to lie flat on his back and squeezed his eyes shut, hoping it would make the nausea pass. “But you won’t, because you love me.”
Her voice softened. “Why did you do it?”
“I didn’t. I swear. Even if no one else believes me, you have to.”
She sighed, and he thought it meant she’d given up on being mad at him. “If it wasn’t you, then who was it?”
“I don’t know, but I can find out. You know I can.” He cracked an eye open and saw she’d moved to her small window. Sunshine streaming in hurt to look at, so he shut his eyes again.
Snapping the curtains shut, she returned to crouch beside him. “You’re such an idiot, Owen.”
“Nonsense. I’m charming and clever. That’s why you love me.”
“I got you pretty good, huh?” Her cool hand laid on his forehead, pressing with enough pressure to make his pain recede.
He cracked an eye open again and found her smiling down at him. “Took me by surprise.”
She chuckled. “Gotta work on those reflexes.” Taking a deep breath, she let her tiny thread of magic loose to work on his injuries.
He sighed again, this time from the easing of his belly. “But then you won’t get any opportunities to take care of me.”
“I have no doubt you’ll get into plenty of trouble trying to clear your name of this hideous offense. When my mom finds out, she’ll think it was you. So you shouldn’t be found here today.” She leaned in and kissed him. “Which means you should come back late tonight.”
He grinned. “Don’t wait up. I’ll wake you. With the underpants of the offender in hand so you can humiliate him properly.” Hugging her close, he reveled in her scent, an earthy mix of sage and potatoes. “You should let me marry you. Then we won’t have to sneak around anymore.”
She stuck out her tongue and pushed him away. “I’m not ready to start my own homestead yet.”
“Bah.” Scrambling to the trap door, he flashed a wide grin. “We can just mooch off your mom’s for a while.”
Rolling her eyes, she waved to shoo him off. “Get going before my father decides to tell my mom what he can obviously overhear.”
Owen heard a cough from the other side of the door, followed by feet shuffling away. “I barely touched her,” he called out. Quieter, he added, “This time.”