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August 1360Grantley Manor, Clenmell, Durham, England.
-Lady Grace Stanton watched the man walking towards her. Tall, dark and beautiful.
She had not expected that.
This beauty worried her more than the danger that cloaked him or the distance he wore like a mantle, and when he finally stood before them and the dust of the horses had settled, she schooled her expression and looked up.
He was disappointed. She could see it in his eyes. Pale shadow blue with suspicion simmering just below the surface. Her heart sank and she felt the aching cold of his distrust. With a feigned smile she took his offered fingers into her own, hating her bitten-down nails and the way the red dryness on her skin looked against the brown smoothness of his.
She had been burdened with this complaint for the whole of her twenty-six years. But today at least the skin beneath her eyes was not crusty raw and weeping.
'Lady Grace.' He relinquished contact as soon as he had said her name.
'Kerr.' Her uncle was the Earl of Carrick and his tone was anything but welcoming, his furrowed gaze including the twenty or so clansmen who sat on horses behind Kerr. 'We expected you a week ago.'
'Ye have the priest, then?' Kerr cut in, dispensing completely with any pretence to manners.
'We do. Father O'Brian has come up from"
'Then bring him here.'
'But my niece is not even dressed.'
'A dress is the least of her worries given the decree of my king.' His words were flat. Insolent, almost. Teetering on the edge of treason. As Grace looked around at her uncle, the harshness of light made him seem old; a man who had outgrown the demands of battle and wanted now to amble towards his dotage with somesemblance of peace. When her glance fell on the weaponry that the Kerrs bristled with, she knew more plainly than ever before the true price of politics. One false move and her family would suffer, for innocent pawns were easily expendable against a background of political frustration.
'I th-th-think, U-Uncle, that you should ask F-F-Father O'Brian to c-c-come out to us.' Lord. Her stammer was far worse than it usually was. Grace heard rather than saw the way the men behind Kerr murmured and her pulse quickened so markedly that she wondered if she would fall over from a lack of breath.
No, she would not!
Biting down on her bottom lip, she was very still, centring calm across panic until she felt the alarm recede.
'You would be married here? Outside? But you had hoped '
'Nay, Uncle. Here will be g-good.'
Hopes! She scanned the face of the warrior opposite, fully expecting mirth or at the very least pity, but saw neither.
Just a duty, she suddenly thought. This marriage was a duty, a way of appeasing his monarch and filling the coffers of his own keep.
'Tainted with a skin condition, but with good child-bearing hips.' The envoy from Edward the Third of England had uttered exactly those words as she had been summoned for the first time before him. She remembered her uncle's momentary fury as the decree was laid in his hands, a piece of paper that would change their lives for ever. If he did not comply, Grantley Manor would be at risk. Grantley! The family seat lost if not for the sacrifice of marrying a plain and ageing niece off to a chosen spouse. Even her uncle had limits as to what he was prepared to lose.
The will of kings. A union forged while all grappled with the concept of the self-determination of Scotland.
She could see the outline of impatience in Lachlan Kerr's eyes, sky blue see-through-you eyes with just a hint of grey. Eyes that said he surely knew the extent of her reputation at court, where the rumours of who she was and wasn't were touted in the songs of unkind jesters; a figure of fun to give the ladies and lords a moment's respite against the harsher realities of intrigue. Stephen had told her last summer, after he had returned from London, her cousin reciting the faults, thinking he did her a favour with the warning.
Perhaps he did, Grace mused. A year ago she might have missed the censure and pity so plainly etched on Kerr's face and imagined it merely as nerves. Today the full shape of an undisguised gall was evident in his frown, in his stance and in the way he stood before them, one hand on his hip and the other on the hilt of a sword.
His brother's seconds!
This was not his choice, not his want. She pulled the sleeves of her dress down lower, glad when the lace covered even the very tips of her fingers.
A movement from the front door drew everyone's attention as Judith, Anne and Ginny bustled down the stairs towards them, their fair hair burnished gold by the sun. Individually her young cousins were pretty; together they were much more than that. She felt the interest of the men behind Kerr as a sharpening of awareness, a distinct and utter masculine appreciation. She refrained from seeing if her husband-to-be was watching them in the same way, reasoning that even a slim shadow of doubt was preferable to the knowing of it.
Judith leaned over to her and whispered exactly what it was Grace was thinking. 'He is far bigger than we had thought.' Her husky lisp contained both tremor and question.
Nerves, Grace decided and squeezed the hand that threaded through her own, trying to give some sort of reassurance. Anne and Ginny crowded in behind. Waiting. She felt their collected fear like an ache and gestured them back, behind her, where she could stand between any threat of violence, should it come from the Scots.
'These are m-my cousins.' She felt she had to say something as an awkward silence hung across the group and was pleased when her uncle tried to ease the tension.
'The envoy led us to believe that you would be at Grantley before the last Sabbath, Laird Kerr.'
'I was detained.'
Detained. The word held an edge of dark despair.
By what? By whom?
A woman, perhaps? The thought slipped into Grace's mind as she observed him, for he had been married before. She knew, because Judith had overheard the king's man saying so to his travelling companion, just before he had spoken of the lack of coinage the Kerrs were cursed with, and the desperate need of the Laird to find a woman of means.
Means. Indeed she had that.
With a substantial inheritance and a bloodline that was the very zenith of pure, her dowry would go far to help the ailing finances of any family down on its luck.
Marriage! Would this stranger demand his conjugal rights this very evening in front of his band of men? Lord, even the idea of removing her clothes had the blood rushing to her cheeks.
He would see.
He would know.
He would understand the truth of what before had only been whispered at and if he thought her ugly now She shook her head. Hard. And feeling the sharp ends of Anne's nails digging into the flesh of her inner arm, she tried to take charge.
'W-Would you c-come inside and have a meal?'
Better, she thought. Much better. At least every word was not cursed with a stammer. Raising her glance, she looked straight at the man who would be her husband. In the direct sunlight he had squinted his eyes and the gathering lines to each side of his face were attractive. No other way to describe them. Much more attractive than his brother had been, and he was deemed a handsome man! Angry at her wayward musings, she spoke again.
'Father O'B-Brian is still at prayer and could be so for a while. If you could p-p-poss-poss '
He stopped her simply by laying his hand across her own and she had the distinct impression of help.
Confused, she looked around. Judith's eyes were filled with tears and weepy, and Anne and Ginny's faces were pale. Lord, she prayed her cousins would not burst forth into noisy wailing. Not in front of these men. Not when the safety of Grantley depended on a marriage, signed, sealed and delivered.
Sacrifice. Expediency. Words that had shaped her life for all her years and would now continue doing so. It was written in the blood of men and in the ink of kings.
Irrevocable. Unalterable. Settled.
There could be no going back or refusal. Her life for her family's lands.
She imagined herself with a sword in hand, beating back any enemy, protecting them with her finesse, winning a battle that no other ever could have
The thought was so ridiculous she began to smile, but caught back the humour as flinted steeled eyes met her own. And swallowed. Now was not the time for foolish flights of fancy.
'My uncle has some f-fine Rhenish wine.'
When Kerr inclined his head and gestured to his men, she felt a sigh of relief. Not quite time to leave, then. Still an hour or so before she would be wrenched from here and transplanted to Belridden, his keep a good forty miles to the north.
With a heavy heart she led the men in and, conscious of the fact that the Laird of Kerr walked directly behind her, tried her hardest to minimise her limp.
Following Lady Grace, Lachlan decided that her hair beneath the ugly skullcap was long and red. Not the quiet red of auburn or the burnished red of copper, her hair was a bright gilt shade that showed up in her brows and on the freckles that her cheeks were blemished with. And the skin on both her arms was strangely marred by dryness.
She was not at all the girl he had expected. Nay, woman, he corrected himself, for he knew her to be twenty-six. Long past the more usual time of marriage, long past the silly vacuous age of rising hope. For that at least he was glad. He frowned as he remembered back to the things that were said of Lady Grace Stanton.
Frightened. Temperate. Plain. A dreamer. Aye, and for these things she would do. And do well.
No temptress to dole out her favours to other men when he was away from the Kerr land. No competition to Rebecca, either; with the quick tongue of his mistress silenced, he knew that life at Belridden would be much easier than if he had brought home a beauty.
Lady Grace would suit him admirably. A homely and well-dowered wife. A woman who would not complain. A lady who would have the means to run his castle and the hips to bear his children. It was enough, and, if life had taught him anything, it had been not to expect too much.
The flash of humour as she had tempted him with the wine had been worrying, though! He had seen that look before in the eyes of experienced courtesans. A certain arrogance and self-assurance that came with the innate confidence of beautiful women.
Grace Stanton was hardly beautiful.
And yet she was not ugly either. Not when the sun hit the light velvet of her eyes or shadowed deep dimples on each cheek. Not when her fingers had touched his arm and he had felt something more than mere indifference.
Frowning he glanced over at the younger cousins. Frail, fragile and fearful.
She protected them, supported them, held their shaking fingers in her own and shepherded them inside, like a mother hen might do to her chicks when the rowdy farmyard dog was nigh.
He looked at his men and saw that their interest was firmly placed on his wife-to-be, and on the ring she wore.
He had seen it immediately when first he had taken her hand.
His brother's ring.
The gold insignia burnished by time.
Ten months since Malcolm had been killed in an accident at Grantley with the explanations of his demise as patently false as the proffered sympathy. No body had ever been found, the ravine he had fallen into deep and craggy and a river at its bottom channelling out to sea. Lach's brows drew together as he remembered the Earl of Carrick's oldest son Stephen giving his grandmother and him a version of the death with lying eyes and a shaking voice. Fallen during a ride after giving his troth to Stephen's cousin? Looking at the lady herself, Lach could not believe her to have inspired a proposal from a brother who had courted and left many of the beauties of both England and Scotland.
Curtailed by politics, however, any revenge was compromised by the unchangeable declaration of meddlesome kings.
A wife of means would be provided to pacify the Kerr clan for the loss of their kin. One brother for another and half of the spoils of the Stanton dowry to fill the empty coffers of Belridden. A quarter would go to Edward; a sop perhaps for Lionel, the Duke of Clarence, in his own bid for the Scottish throne, and the rest to David, a welcome windfall with the merks of the Berwick Treaty largely unpaid. When Lachlan had protested against the offer, it was made clear to him by David that he had no choice. Marry the girl or risk his lands! Put so succinctly, he had packed his things and headed south to get her: his brother's intended, the Kerr ring still on her finger carved in gold and rubies. Unhidden.
The bile rose in his throat. Had it just been he, he might well have laid his hands around the slim column of her neck and squeezed the truth from her about what had happened to his brother.
But he couldn't. Not with the fate of his people resting so firmly in her traitorous palms.