Read an Excerpt
Dunbar Keep, Scotland June 1395
"Not a what! A who. And as I have already said, the king would consider it a great favor if you would marry Lady Iliana Wildwood." Lord Rolfe Kenwick glared at the Scot before him, silently cursing King Richard II for sending him on this quest. This was the second wedding he had arranged in as many months, the first being that of his own cousin Emmalene to Amaury de Aneford. He supposed he should be grateful that that wedding had been easy. This one was proving next to impossible.
"An English." Duncan Dunbar grimaced in distaste at the idea. "Aye. 'Tis sure I am that he would consider it a favor fer me to take one o' his pasty-faced cows off his hands. What is she, one o' his by-blows?"
"You " His temper finally snapping, Rolfe grabbed for the hilt of his sword.
His sword half out of its sheath, Rolfe paused and glanced at the man who had spoken. Bishop Wykeham. King Richard had pressed the retired prelate back into service to marry Emmalene and Amaury. That chore done, however, he had not been allowed to return quietly to retirement. Nay. On their arrival at court to report the success of their mission, they had learned of another marriage that must take place in haste, one to protect Lady Wildwood. Oddly enough, to afford that protection to Lady Wildwood, her daughter must marry as soon as possible, and to someone who lived as far from Wildwood manor in southern England as they could manage on such short notice.
Scotland had seemed the best bet. The problem was that they needed a nobleman who was not already betrothed and who could be bribed into marriage. There were few men like that around. Most of the nobility saw their children betrothed ere they were walking. The only man who came close to fitting their needs had been Angus Dunbar, the aging widower and clan chief of the Dunbars.
Unfortunately, Angus had made it more than clear that he had no interest in remarrying, no matter what was offered as an incentive. Just when Rolfe had thought he would have to return to his king in failure, the old man had suggested they make the offer to his son, Duncan. Nearly thirty though he was, he was still unmarried. His betrothed had died young, and rather than arrange another match for his son, the Dunbar had left it for Duncan to tend to in his own time.
"Nay," Bishop Wykeham repeated now in answer to the Scot. "Lady Wildwood is the daughter of a wealthy baron who died while in service to the king in Ireland."
Sighing, Rolfe let his sword slide back into its sheath, adding, "She has a most generous dowry."
"Hmm." Duncan's lips pursed in obvious disappointment. "How generous?"
Rolfe repeated the amount King Richard had quoted to him, frowning slightly when the Scot showed no reaction. Shifting, he added reluctantly, "If that is not enough, the king has agreed to add to it."
Duncan continued to stare, apparently unimpressed.
"How much is the king willing to add?" Angus asked, speaking for the first time since leading them to his son.
"He would go so far as to double it," Rolfe admitted reluctantly, worried that by the lack of response of the Dunbars even that would not be enough. Much to his amazement, the younger Dunbar cursed at that, drew his sword, whirled away with a roar, and charged off across the courtyard, his plaid slapping against his legs as he ran.
Everyone in the bailey paused to watch him race madly toward a small group of men practicing at battle. Reaching the nearest of them, he released a second roar and raised his sword high. That warrior immediately brought his own sword up and the clang of metal meeting metal rang through the bailey. As if it were some sort of cue, all who had stopped went about their business again, wholly unconcerned by the man's daft behavior.
Turning slowly to Angus Dunbar, Rolfe raised one eyebrow in question.
"He be thinkin' on it," the old Scot explained with a toothy grin. "We'll go in an' have a mug o' ale while he decides." Turning away, he started up the steps to the keep.
Shaking his head, Rolfe glanced at the bishop. "What think you?"
"I think we should have a mug o' ale and await his decision," the bishop murmured with amusement; then seeing the younger man's bewilderment, clapped a hand on his back, urging him toward the stairs. "You have not had much experience of Scots, have you, my boy?"
"Nay," Rolfe admitted with a slight frown.
"Well, I have had some small opportunity to deal with them and I should tell you, they are not like the English."
"Aye." Rolfe grimaced. "I had come to that conclusion myself."
* * *
"Ho! And what is it has me brother so afire?"
Recognizing his sister's voice, Duncan plowed his free fist into the jaw of the man whose sword was locked with his own. Without waiting to see him fall to the ground, he turned, drove the tip of his sword into the ground, grabbed Seonaid up in a bear hug, and whirled her around. "Congratulate me, sweetling. 'Tis a happy man I be."
"I can see that, brother." She laughed breathlessly as he dropped her lightly back to her feet. She stepped back, grinning broadly, and Duncan saw that she was accompanied by their two cousins, Allistair and Aelfread. "Now tell me why," his sister said.
"What is it I have dreamed o' doin' since I turned eighteen? What is it I have worked the men near to death fer? What would I ask fer were I given a wish?"
Hands propped on her hips, Seonaid Dunbar tipped her head to the side. "Enlarge the castle and replace the crumbling old wall that surrounds it?"
"Aye." Duncan could barely contain his glee. "We shall do that now. That an' more. We shall dig a new well. Purchase fine horses. We shall e'en increase the size o' our flock o' sheep!"
"And how would ye be plannin' to manage all that?" Seonaid asked skeptically.
"With coins from the English king."
"Oh, aye," Seonaid shared a disbeliving glance with the men around them. "And why exactly would the king o' England be givin' ye so much wealth?"
"He wants me to marry an Englishman's whelp."
"Marry?" The word was a bare whisper. Seonaid looked stunned, even a little hurt, and Duncan's amusement faded, replaced with the beginnings of guilt.
Seonaid was his only sibling. She had been his only playmate as a child until their uncle had died and his children, Allistair and Aelfread, had come to live with them. Then it had been the four of them rolling and romping in the muck, tromping through the woods, and hunting or playing at games of war. When it had come time for the two boys to train in battle, Aelfread and Seonaid had joined in the practice sessions as if it were their right, and no one had said them nay. Both women now handled the sword with a skill equal to any man's.
"She must be a cow for the king to pay so handsomely," Allistair said with disdain as he moved to stand beside Seonaid.
"Aye, the veriest cow," Aelfread agreed, taking up position on Seonaid's other side.
Ignoring his cousins, Duncan peered silently at his sister, taking in her pale face and pinched lips. Like him, she had inherited the Dunbar height, almost matching his own six feet. But where Duncan was thick through the shoulders and chest, she was svelte, and where Duncan had their father's wavy red-brown tresses, Seonaid had inherited their mother's coloring. Her hair was black as night, flowing straight down her back like water out of a pail. She was strong, beautiful, twenty-four years old, and still not wed.
Cursing, Duncan turned away.
"Where be ye going?" Seonaid grasped at his arm.
Covering her hand with his own, he flashed her a reassuring smile. "I've some hagglin' to do," he murmured, then gently pulled free and headed for the keep.
He would marry the English. He would marry her for the money. But he would also marry her for Seonaid, for he would ask a favor of the king in return. Duncan would see Seonaid married. He would have the king force Lord Sherwell, his sister's betrothed, to either fulfill their betrothal contract or set her free to marry another. Either way, she would no longer be left in the limbo that made her so unhappy.
Duncan had decided.
Excerpted from The Key by Lyndsay Sands. Copyright © 1999 by Lynsay Sands. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.