Near Falkirk, Scotland, Spring 1607
Flora MacLeod turned her gaze from the window to peer into the darkness at the man seated opposite her. She never had second thoughts, which—given that it was too late to change her mind—she supposed was a good thing. No, once she made a decision, she stuck with it. A small army couldn’t turn her from her course. In the matter of her marriage, there was no exception.
“Don’t be silly,” she replied. “I couldn’t be happier.”
It was clear, however, that her soon-to-be husband, William, Lord Murray, son of the newly created Earl of Tullibardine, didn’t believe her. “Happy? I haven’t seen you so subdued in months.” He paused. “It’s not too late to turn back, you know.”
But it was. She’d made her decision the moment she’d snuck out of Holyrood House and scrambled into the waiting carriage.
“I don’t want to turn back.” But the vehemence she’d intended was lost when her voice vibrated with the clattering carriage. A carriage that was fighting to stay upright on the uneven road. She grabbed the seat as best she could when they hit another bump and tried not to crash sidelong into the glossy, wood-paneled walls. A battle she was sure to lose before this day was done. The road leading from Edinburgh would only get worse as they neared the parish of Falkirk.
“Maybe we would have been better off riding after all?” she ventured. It was at Lord Murray’s insistence that they’d taken the carriage—luxurious, but impractical on the road to the Highland divide.
“No need to worry on that account. We’re perfectly safe. My coachman is an excellent driver.” William tried to hand her back her purse, which had slid off the bench beside her, but it slipped through her fingers, landing on the floor again. He laughed. “I never thought I’d see the day that Flora MacLeod was nervous.”
Her mouth twitched, caught. “Perhaps I am a bit anxious. I’ve never done this before, you know.”
He gave her hand a friendly pat. “I should hope not. But no need to worry, everything is all arranged. It shouldn’t be much longer now.”
She sat back against the seat and tried to relax. If all went according to plan, in a few hours she would be Lady Murray. Lord Murray—William, she reminded herself—had found a minister willing to preside over the clandestine marriage ceremony without proclaiming the banns. Every man had his price, and for the minister of the St. Mary’s Kirk it happened to be a cask of fine claret and five hundred merks. More than enough to soften the blow of any fine that might be levied against him for performing the irregular marriage ceremony.
An irregular marriage was Flora’s only option. She would not take a chance that one of her brothers, or her powerful cousin, would hear of her plans beforehand and try to stop her.
If she had to marry, she thought grimly, it would be a man of her choosing.
She cursed the fates for putting her in this position. She had no desire to marry at all. But it was her great misfortune to be half-sister to not one, but two powerful Highland chiefs. And if that weren’t enough, her cousin was the most influential Highlander in Scotland. But this “marriage prize,” as she was infuriatingly referred to, would rather avoid the state altogether. Marriage brought nothing but unhappiness.
Her mother’s misery was all too fresh in Flora’s mind.
But about the only thing worse than being married was being forced to marry. So rather than risk the alternative, she’d decided to take the matter of her husband in her own hands. In this case by riding at breakneck speed through the countryside to find a minister of questionable repute in an out-of-the-way parish where she would not be recognized.
She gazed sidelong at the man seated opposite her. Even in the darkness of the carriage she could see the silvery sheen of blond hair cascading across a face that could only be described as sublime. But though he was undeniably pleasing to the eye, it was not his looks that had made her decide to accept his proposal. Nor was it his wit and intelligence, of which he also had a superfluity. It was because William had wealth, power, and position of his own—he did not need hers. She had no need to question his motives beyond what he’d stated: Their union was of friends who would seek their mutual advantage by their union.
As an added boon, he didn’t seem particularly concerned with Highland politics. And of that subject, she’d heard her fill. The lessons of the mother had indeed been well learned by the daughter. She would sooner marry a toad than a Highlander.
And Lord Murray was infinitely more appealing than a toad.
“And what of you, William. Any second thoughts?”
“Don’t you worry what will happen when they discover—”
“Is that what this is about?” He took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “You wrote the letters, did you not?”
She nodded. One good thing about having so many relatives was that there were many places she could claim to be with none the wiser. Fortunately, the one person who might question her whereabouts—her cousin Elizabeth Campbell—was on Skye attending to the birth of Flora’s latest nephew. The second son in as many years of her half-brother Alex and his wife, Meg—a wife Flora had never met. Her mother had been too ill to travel the year they’d come to court.
“Then there is no reason to assume they will find out,” William said confidently. “And thanks to your disguise, no one will have noticed you leaving the palace.”
Noting the direction of his gaze, she touched the white linen cap she wore on her head. She grinned, amused by the image she must present. Flora was well-known for her propensity to find mischief at Holyrood House. But sneaking out of the palace at midnight to elope with one of the most powerful young men at court, dressed as a maidservant, was sure to top all that had come before. She’d outdone herself. And coming from the girl who’d once donned breeches and climbed halfway down the parapet beneath her balcony at Castle Campbell before her cousin Jamie caught her, that was saying something.
Uncomfortably aware of the scratchy woolen dress she was wearing that poked right through the fine linen of her shift, she asked, “You were able to pick up my gown?”
“As charmingly rustic as you look, my dear, I hardly think the future Countess of Tullibardine should be married dressed as a servant. Your gown is in the trunk, though procuring it from your dressmaker did take some explaining.”
Flora chuckled, thinking of the dour Frenchwoman. The court’s preference for French fashion was the one lasting legacy from the reign of Mary Queen of Scots—other than her son, King James, of course. “It seemed the easiest thing to do. I could hardly sneak it out with me. Madame de Ville already thinks me horribly indecorous. I doubt anything you could say would change her opinion.” Indecorous was probably an understatement. Flora had a reputation at court for being more than a touch unruly.
Fortunately, William had never seemed to be bothered by her reputation. If anything, her penchant for finding trouble seemed to amuse him. After news of tonight’s events spread, he was going to need that sense of humor. Their elopement was sure to cause a scandal far greater than anything she’d ever managed before.
She bit her lip. He was taking a risk. Not much older than her four and twenty years, he’d already made a name for himself in King James’s northern court. He wielded considerable influence among the privy councillors—the men left in charge while the king wooed his recalcitrant English subjects at Whitehall. Eloping with the Earl of Argyll’s cousin, and the half-sister of Rory MacLeod and Hector Maclean, was a potentially dangerous move for a young man of ambition.
One that might be excused by strength of affection, but Flora did not delude herself in that regard. Although attentive, her soon-to-be husband could hardly be described as besotted. As her feelings were similarly disengaged, it was actually another element in his favor. There would be no pretense on either side. They were friends, nothing more. It was far more than could be said of most marriages.
Most important, she knew him well enough to know that he would not try to control her. She would live her life, and he would live his. It was all she wanted.
But what of him? What did he want?
Flora had known William for years, ever since she’d first made her appearance at court six years ago. But unlike most of the young men of her acquaintance, he’d never pursued her. His sudden courtship—in earnest—upon her recent return to Edinburgh was thus unexpected but admittedly well timed.
For scarcely a few days after he’d made his intentions known, a letter from her half-brother Rory, Chief of MacLeod, arrived requesting her presence at Dunvegan Castle to “discuss her future.” Ironically, the request from Rory was followed not long after by one from her half-brother Hector, Chief of Maclean, requesting her presence on the Isle of Mull. Flora was hardly fooled by the near simultaneous requests. A discussion about her future could mean only one thing for a young woman of four and twenty left alone by the sudden death of her mother: marriage. Or, more specifically, the right to control her marriage.
With her mother gone and her father buried long before, the right belonged to Rory. A brother she hardly knew. From what she did remember of him, he didn’t seem as if he would force her to marry a man not of her choosing. But she could not take the chance. Even if Rory could be persuaded, Hector and her cousin Argyll wouldn’t let the matter be decided without interference.
All three would be furious to discover what she’d done.
Her brothers should have known better than to try to force her hand. Though she hadn’t seen them in some time, in some ways she hadn’t changed. But perhaps they’d forgotten the little girl who hated to be backed into a corner?
Flora gazed at William again, peering through the darkness to study him a little longer, wondering not for the first time why he’d agreed to her plan to elope. But she quickly pushed aside the sudden twinge of uncertainty.
From the Paperback edition.