Bride for a Knightby Sue-Ellen Welfonder
On the eve of his return to Baldreagan Castle, Highlander Jamie Macpherson cannot believe his eyes: a golden-haired beauty haloed in the moonlight of St. Bride's glade, so delicate and fair she can only be a faerie. With his desire rising like a wave, the knight longs to see her again. The next time is even more surprising: Aveline Matheson is the flesh-and… See more details below
On the eve of his return to Baldreagan Castle, Highlander Jamie Macpherson cannot believe his eyes: a golden-haired beauty haloed in the moonlight of St. Bride's glade, so delicate and fair she can only be a faerie. With his desire rising like a wave, the knight longs to see her again. The next time is even more surprising: Aveline Matheson is the flesh-and-blood bride of his arranged marriage, a woman eager to discover the pleasures of wedded bliss. And woe to those who would stop their lovemaking! Yet danger threatens the newlyweds. Jamie's darkest foe has already murdered his brothers and now threatens to destroy every Macpherson. But the enemy hasn't counted on one thing: Jamie will do whatever he must to keep his bride alive and in his arms forever...
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Bride For A Knight
By Sue-Ellen Welfonder
ForeverCopyright © 2007 Sue-Ellen Welfonder
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFAIRMAIDEN CASTLE NEAR BALDREAGAN, AUTUMN 1347
"The tenth son?"
Aveline Matheson paced the length of the high table, her father's startling news echoing in her ears. Equally distressing, her sister's red-rimmed gaze followed her and that made her feel unpleasantly guilty.
She took a deep breath, trying hard to ignore the sensation that her world was spinning out of control.
"To be sure, I remember there was a younger son, but ..." She paused, finding it hard to speak with Sorcha's teary-eyed stare boring holes in her.
Indeed, not just her oldest sister, but every kinsman crowding the great hall. All of them were staring at her. Swiveling heads and narrowing eyes. Measuring her reaction as if the entire future and fortune of Clan Matheson rested upon her shoulders.
And from what she'd heard, it did.
Wincing inwardly, she stopped in front of her father's laird's chair and stood as tall as her diminutive stature would allow.
That, and Alan Mor Matheson's fierce countenance. A look her plaid-hung, bushy-bearded father wielded with as much skill as he swung his sword.
Seeing that look now, she swallowed, wanting only to escape the hall. Instead, she held her ground. "For truth, I am sore grieved for LairdMacpherson," she began, scarce able to grasp the horror of losing nine sons at once, "but if you mean to insist upon a union between our houses, shouldn't Sorcha be the bride?"
Upon her words, Sorcha gave an audible gasp.
Alan Mor's face hardened, his large hands splaying on the high table. "Saints of glory!" he boomed, his choler causing his eldest daughter to jump as if he'd struck her.
Ignoring her distress, he leaned forward, kept his attention on Aveline. "Your sister was to be the bride. She was to wed Macpherson's eldest son, Neill. As well you know. Now, with Neill and the others dead, only Jamie remains."
He paused, letting the last two words hang in the smoke-hazed air. "Sorcha is more than fifteen summers the lad's senior and your other three sisters are wed. I willna risk the alliance with Macpherson by denying his only remaining son the most suitable bride I can offer."
Aveline lifted her chin. "Be that as it may-"
"It doesn't matter. Not now." Sorcha touched her arm, blinking back the brightness in her eyes. "'Twas Neill who should've been mine. I-I ... would have followed him to the ends of this earth, even through the gates of hell," she vowed, her voice thick. "I've no wish to wed Young Jamie."
"Even so, I still grieve for you." Aveline released an uneven breath, a surge of pity tightening her chest. "And my heart breaks for the Macphersons."
Alan Mor hooted. "Your sister is a well-made young woman with fine prospects. Another husband will be found for her," he declared, glancing around as if he expected someone to gainsay him. "As for that cross-grained old goat, Macpherson, that one has e'er claimed the devil's own luck. His hurts will lessen once he remembers the bonny bit of glen he'll be getting to graze his precious cattle. Not to mention the well-filled coffers he wheedled out of me."
A chill slid down Aveline's spine. She said nothing.
If her father had brimming coffers to offer Munro Macpherson, he'd likely filled them with stones-or empty words and bluster.
Sure of it, she watched Sorcha whirl away and move toward the hearth fire. With her shoulders and back painfully straight, the older girl's face looked pale in the torchlight, her eyes shadowed and puffy. Worse, her stony expression voiced what every Matheson knew.
Neill Macpherson had been her last chance to wed.
Few were the suitors willing to accept Sorcha's large-boned, overly tall form for well made. And even Alan Mor's most cunning double-dealing and swagger couldn't transform her plain face into a pleasing one.
Indeed, not few were those who shook their heads over Neill's acceptance of her.
But he'd agreed for the sake of an alliance.
And now he was dead.
Shuddering, Aveline curled her fingers into her skirts, the image of the MacPherson brothers' last moments flashing across her mind.
Not that she'd been there.
But everyone born of these hills knew the treacheries of the white-water cauldron known as Garbh Uisge, the Rough Waters. They filled the deep, birch-lined gorge that divided Matheson and Macpherson lands.
A danger-fraught chasm, alive with a wildly plunging waterfall and splashing, boulder-strewn burn, the surging cataracts and clouds of spume now posed a forever reminder of nature's wrath. Leastways when served by the splintering of damp, age-warped wood.
The unexpected collapse of a narrow footbridge neither clan had been willing to refurbish, each laird insisting his neighbor made more use of the bridge and ought to dole out the coin for its repair.
A hotheaded foolhardiness that had taken a grim toll, and now sent Aveline striding across the hall, away from her father's black-browed arrogance.
"You err," she said, keeping her back to him as she wrenched open the shutters of the nearest window. "Naught in this world will ease Laird Macpherson's pain."
"Mayhap not," Alan Mor shot back, "but the man's a good deal more daft than I thought if he isn't at least comforted by the boons he'll reap through this alliance."
To Aveline's dismay, an immediate ripple of assent swept the hall. Murmured agreement swiftly followed by the clinking of ale cups and boisterous cheer. Alan Mor's own self-pleased grunt.
Aveline tightened her jaw and stared out at the misty, rain-sodden night, the outline of rugged black hills and the glimmer of distant stars twinkling through gray, wind-torn clouds.
"God grant you have the rights of it," she said at last, welcoming the evening's chill on her face. "Nevertheless, I would speak out against taking advantage of a man who is down and foundering."
"'Taking advantage'?" Alan Mor's deep voice shook the hall. "You'd best speak plain, lass. And hie yourself away from that window."
Stiffening, Aveline kept her gaze on the silvery glint of the river winding through the trees not far from Fairmaiden Castle's curtain walls. Older than time, the slow-moving river gave itself much more placid than the white-watered Garbh Uisge that had claimed so many innocent lives.
And brought others to this unexpected pass.
Her temples beginning to throb, she turned from the window. Sorcha now stood in a darkened corner, her ravaged, tear-stained face shielded from the reach of torchlight. Everyone else was turned her way, her father's face wearing an even darker scowl than before.
Aveline squared her shoulders, then took a step forward.
"Well?" Alan Mor demanded, his stare almost searing the air. "Are you accusing me of trying to deceive Macpherson?"
"Nay, I-" Aveline broke off, unable to lie. Her father's famed sleights of hand and well-oiled words were known throughout the Highlands.
Coming forward, she sought a way to cushion her suspicions. "I would not accuse you of aught," she ventured, hoping only she heard the cynicism in her tone. "And to be sure, I am willing to wed, am even eager for the day I might have a husband and household of my own."
"Then why are you looking as if you've just bit into something bitter?"
"Because," Aveline admitted, "I do not think Munro Macpherson will appreciate us meddling-"
"So now I'm a meddler?" Alan Mor shot to his feet, the movement scattering the parchments spread before him. "Helping the old fool is what I'm doing! Did you not hear me say tongue-waggers claim he's taken to his bed? That he fears leaving his privy chambers because he thinks the ghosts of his sons have returned to Baldreagan? Are haunting him?"
Alan Mor glared at her, his nostrils flaring. "Munro isn't yet in his dotage, but he soon will be if no one takes him in hand. He needs Jamie."
"Since when have you cared about Macpherson's well-doing?" Aveline challenged, stepping onto the dais. "You and Munro were ne'er friends."
"We are neighbors." Her father looked down, took a sudden interest in examining the colored string tied around a rolled parchment. "Knowing he's right in his head is a lesser evil than annoying the bastard."
"I vow you'll vex him mightily if you persist in this fool plan of yours." Aveline snatched the parchment scroll from her father's hand and held it out of his reach. "Munro Macpherson ne'er spoke fondly of Jamie. He's even been heard to call him a dirk thrust beneath his ribs."
Alan Mor sucked in his breath, his surprise at her bluntness all the answer Aveline needed.
Neither the Macpherson nor Young Jamie knew her father still meant to uphold the proposed alliance.
"Word is, Jamie's grown into a fine, strapping lad. A knight." Alan Mor recovered quickly, thrusting out his chin. "He even fought alongside King David at Neville's Cross last autumn, his bravery and valor earning him much acclaim. Munro will change his mind about the lad once he's home."
"Still ..." Aveline tightened her grip on the parchment. "I do not think this should be sent to Jamie until Laird Macpherson is fit enough to decide if he, too, still wishes a union between our houses."
To her horror, her father laughed.
As did his inky-fingered scribe.
"Too late!" Alan Mor's eyes lit with mischief. "That scroll in your hand is naught but a letter to your sister in Inverness, asking of her health and thanking her for the casks of wine her husband sent to us. The many jars of their heather-tasting honey."
Aveline dropped the parchment. "You mean you've already sent word to Jamie? Without informing Macpherson?"
The look on her father's face turned smug. "Someday you'll thank me. You, and that blethering fool, Macpherson."
Alan Mor snorted. "Him most of all-once he sets eyes on you!"
His foul temper forgotten, he beamed on her. "What young loon wouldn't be pleased with such a delicate bloom?"
But Aveline wasn't so sure.
Glancing down, her gaze skimmed over her thick braid, not acknowledging how it gleamed like gold in the candlelight, but rather settling on her tiny hands and feet, the smallness of her breasts. Anything but a full woman, lushly curved and ripe, she doubted any man would find favor with her.
Or the distasteful circumstance that would propel her and Young Jamie into a marriage bed.
No man liked being duped.
Long-lost son, or no.
Across miles of darkling hills and empty moorland, thick with bracken and winter-browned heather, Clan MacKenzie's Cuidrach Castle loomed above the silent waters of Loch Hourn, the stronghold's proud towers and that great sentinel, the Bastard Stone, silhouetted against a cold, frosty sky.
A chill night; icy stars glittered in the heavens and knifing winds whistled past the windows, rattling shutters and making those within glad for the leaping flames of the great hall's well-doing log fire. Eager-to-please squires circulated with trays of hot, spiced wine and steaming mounds of fresh-baked meat pasties. Men crowded benches drawn close to the hearth, jesting and jostling amongst themselves, their rich masculine laughter rising to the ceiling rafters, bawdy good cheer ringing in every ear.
Only one of Cuidrach's residents shunned the comforts and warmth of the hall this night, seeking instead the privacy of a tiny storeroom filled with wine casks, blessed torchlight, and James Macpherson's mounting frustration.
Holding back an oath that would surely curl the devil's own toes, Young James of the Heather, sometimes teasingly called Jamie the Small, glared at the tiny red bead of blood on his thumb.
The fifth such jab wound he'd inflicted on himself in under an hour.
And, he suspected, most likely not the last. Not if he meant to complete his task.
Sighing, he licked the blood off his finger, then shoved his stool closer to the best-burning wall torch. Perhaps with brighter light, he'd have a better chance of restitching the let-out seams of his new linen tunic.
A birthday gift from his liege lord's lady.
And the finest tunic he'd e'er possessed. Softer than rose petals and with a bold Nordic design embroidered around the neck opening; just looking at it brought a flush a pleasure to his cheeks, and even made his heart thump if he thought about the long hours Lady Mariota had spent crafting such a gift for him. A gift he was determined to wear to his birthday revelries later that night.
He would, too.
If only the tunic weren't so tight across the shoulders, the sleeves a mite too short. And his fool fingers so damnably clumsy.
Frowning, he picked up his needle and set to work again. Truth be told, there was nothing wrong with the tunic ... it was him.
Always had been him.
He was simply too big.
And, he decided a short while later, his hearing a bit too sharp. Leastways keen enough to note the sudden silence pressing against the closed storeroom door.
He tilted his head, listening.
But his instincts hadn't lied.
Gone indeed were the muffled bursts of laughter and ribald song, the occasional barks of the castle dogs. The high-pitched skirls of female delight. Utter stillness held Cuidrach's great hall in a firm grip, the strange hush smothering all sound.
A deep kind of quiet that didn't bode well and even held sinister significance-if he were to trust the way the fine hairs on his nape were lifting. Or the cold chill spilling down his spine.
Curious, he set aside the unfinished tunic and his needle and stood. But before he could cross the tiny storeroom, the door swung open. His liege lord, Sir Kenneth MacKenzie, stood in the doorway, flanked by Sir Lachlan, the Cuidrach garrison captain, and a travel-stained man Jamie had never seen.
The stranger's rain-dampened cloak hung about his shoulders and his wind-tangled hair bespoke a hard ride. But it was more than the man's muddied boots and bleary-eyed fatigue that made Jamie's mouth run dry.
It was the look on the stranger's face.
The undeniable impression of strain and pity that poured off him and filled the little storeroom until Jamie thought he might choke on its rankness.
Especially when he caught the same wary sadness mirrored in Sir Kenneth's and Sir Lachlan's eyes.
Jamie froze. "What is it?" he asked, his gaze moving from face to face. "Tell me straight away for I can see that something dire has happened."
"Aye, lad, I'm afraid that is so. Would that I could make it otherwise, but ..." Kenneth glanced at the stranger, cleared his throat. "See you, this man comes from Carnach in the north of Kintail. Alan Mor Matheson of Fairmaiden Castle sent him. He brings ill tidings. Your father-"
"Of a mercy!" Jamie stared at them. "Dinna tell me he is dead?"
None of the three men spoke a word, but the tautness of their grim-set expressions said everything.
Jamie blinked, a wave of black dizziness washing over him. Sakes, even the floor seemed to dip and heave beneath his feet. It couldn't be true. Naught could have struck down his indomitable father. Munro Macpherson was honed from coldest iron, had steel running in his veins. And after a lifetime of the man's indifference, Jamie shouldn't care what fate befell him.
But he did.
More than he would have believed. So much, the roar of his own blood in his ears kept him from hearing what Kenneth was saying. He could only see the other man's mouth moving, the sad way Sir Lachlan and the courier shook their heads.
Jamie swallowed, pressed cold fingers against his temples. "Tell me that again, sir. I-I didna hear you."
"I said your father is not dead, though he is faring poorly and has taken to his bed. That's why Laird Matheson sent his man to us." Kenneth came forward to grip Jamie's arms. "And there has been a tragedy, aye."
Jamie's heart stopped. He could scarce speak. Breaking away from Kenneth's grasp, he searched the men's faces. "If not my father, then who? One of my brothers?"
The three men exchanged glances.
And so damning they filled Jamie with more dread than if someone had leveled a sword at his throat. For one sickening moment, the faces of his nine brothers flashed before his eyes and he thought he might faint. But before he could, Sir Lachlan unfastened the hip flask at his belt and thrust the flagon into Jamie's hand.
"Drink this," he urged, his face grim. "All of it if you can."
And Jamie did, gulping down the fiery uisge beatha so quickly the strong Highland spirits burned his throat and watered his eyes.
Excerpted from Bride For A Knight by Sue-Ellen Welfonder Copyright © 2007 by Sue-Ellen Welfonder. Excerpted by permission.
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