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O Castle Gloom! thy dark defile Throngs not with Scottish story; On other towers, O proud Argyle Sits crowned thine ancient glory. But little have we of the past, As up the dell we ramble, To figure, floating on the blast, Thy banners, Castle Campbell! “Castle Campbell,” by William Gibson Near Castle Campbell, Clackmannanshire, June 1608
Elizabeth Campbell lowered the creased piece of parchment into her lap and looked out the small window, watching the hulking shadow of Castle Campbell fade into the distance with a heavy heart. No matter how many times she read the letter, it did not change the words. Her time, it seemed, was up.
The carriage bounced along the uneven road, moving at a painstakingly slow pace. Recent rain had made the already rough road to the Highlands treacherous, but if they continued like this, it would take a week to reach Dunoon Castle.
Lizzie glanced across the carriage and caught the furtive gaze of her maidservant, Alys, but the other woman quickly shifted her eyes back to her embroidery, feigning a concentration belied by the ill-formed stitches.
Alys was worried about her, though trying not to show it. Hoping to divert her questions, Lizzie said, “I don’t know how you can sew with all this bumping—”
But her words were cut off when, as if to make her point, her bottom rose off the seat for a long beat and then came down with a hard slam that rattled her teeth, as her shoulder careened into the wood-paneled wall of the carriage.
“Ouch,” she moaned, rubbing her arm once she was able to right herself. She glanced at Alys, who’d suffered a similar fate. “Are you all right?”
“Aye, my lady,” Alys replied, adjusting herself back on the velvet cushion. “Well enough. But if the roads do not improve, we’ll be a heap of broken bones and bruises before we arrive.”
Lizzie smiled. “I suspect it will get much worse. Taking the carriage at all was probably a mistake.” They would have to switch to horses when they passed Stirlingshire, crossed into the Highland divide, and the roads narrowed—or, she should say, became more narrow, as they were barely wide enough for a carriage even in this part of the Lowlands.
“At least we’re dry,” Alys pointed out, always one to see the positive side of a situation. Perhaps that was why Lizzie enjoyed her company so much. They were much alike in that regard. Alys reached down and picked up the letter that had fallen to the ground with the tumult. “You dropped your missive.”
Resisting the urge to snatch it back, Lizzie took it casually and tucked it safely in her skirts. “Thank you.” She could sense Alys’s curiosity about the earl’s letter, about what was taking them to Dunoon Castle so suddenly, but she wasn’t ready to alleviate it. Alys, like everyone else, would find out the contents soon enough. It would be no secret that her cousin the Earl of Argyll intended to find Lizzie a husband.
Apparently, three broken engagements weren’t enough. It was her duty to marry, and marry she must.
Her chest squeezed as the humiliating memory of her most recent broken betrothal returned to her in an unwelcome flash. The pain, even with the passage of two years, was still acute. “Elizabeth Monntach,” they’d called her. And she so eager for compliments that she’d “lapped them right up like a grateful pup.”
The humiliation still burned. Worse, John was right. She’d been far too eager, far too ready to believe that a handsome man like him could care for her for reasons beyond clan alliances and wealth. Her best friend had found happiness; she’d desperately wanted it, too. Enough to ignore what her gut was telling her—that beneath the handsome exterior was a man of weak character and strong ambition.
Hearing the man she’d given her heart to speak so cruelly of her would have been bad enough, but then it got worse. Much worse. She closed her eyes but could not shut out the memories of stammering. Of slipping in the mud. Of their mockery. “Her feet are as tangled as her tongue.” The sounds of their laughter still echoed in her head. She could almost taste the hot, salty tears that had burned in her throat and eyes. She’d wanted to crawl under her bed and never come out.
Only one man had helped her. She’d been too embarrassed to look at him, but she remembered the kindness—not pity—in his voice and the comforting strength of his callused hand. She frowned. Strange to think that her gallant knight had been a MacGregor.
She’d missed the chaos that had followed her departure from the pavilion, but later her brother had told her what had happened. Alasdair Roy MacGregor and his men had escaped right out from under his nose, and Jamie had been none too happy about it. What Jamie couldn’t understand was why the outlaw had risked discovery to come to her assistance in the first place. She didn’t know, either, but she would be forever grateful for his act of kindness.
She sensed that Jamie knew more about the man who’d helped her than he’d let on, but perhaps because he could sense her interest, he’d held his tongue, refusing to satisfy her curiosity about the gallant outlaw.
She’d put an end to the betrothal with John Montgomery immediately, too ashamed to tell her family the particulars. But when he’d been maimed in an attack not long afterward, losing an ear and part of his sword arm, Lizzie wondered if her family had discovered something on their own. She had not wished him ill but knew that nothing she could have said would have stopped her family from exacting retribution. They were much too protective of her. Perhaps that was part of the problem—the Campbells were an intimidating lot.
Lizzie had put the unpleasantness behind her and tried to forget, but sometimes, like now, it would come back to her in a vivid wave as if it had been yesterday. And when word spread that once again the Earl of Argyll was seeking an alliance for his oft-betrothed cousin, the whispering would start all over again.
She dreaded the conversation with her cousin, knowing that she would no longer be able to keep secret the extent of her foolishness with John.
Though her cousin Archie hadn’t come out and said marriage was his intent, Lizzie had read between the lines of his letter. She lifted the parchment to the window once again, the bold black scratches of ink revealing far more than what was written.
My dear cousin,
Summer is fast upon us. I request the pleasure of your company at Dunoon as soon as possible to discuss a matter of some import. As we discussed last winter, for your kindness following the death of the countess last year and your attention to little Archie and the girls, I’ve gifted you with a sizeable parcel of land.
Archibald, 7th Earl of Argyll
More land. How humiliating. Despite her cousin’s claim, Lizzie knew that her help following the death of the countess wasn’t the real reason for the gift. Archie obviously thought he needed to sweeten the pot to get someone to marry her. No doubt he was only trying to help, but her tocher was already one of the richest in the land; wasn’t that enough?
Her shoulders sagged. Apparently not.
Part of this was her own fault. Summer, she’d promised. Could it be June already? When her cousin had broached the subject of another betrothal all those months ago during the Yule celebration, the days were still short and the snow blanketing the moors of Inveraray Castle still comfortably deep. Summer had seemed so far away. There had seemed plenty of time to find a suitable man on her own. Plenty of time in which to fall in love.
After the travesty of her last betrothal, she’d vowed to marry only for love—what she thought she’d found with John. But it had been a foolish girl’s vow. A vow made when her emotions were still raw and tender from his cruelty.
Now, two years later, Lizzie had to be practical. At six and twenty, love probably wasn’t for her.
She sighed at her own foolishness. Even with reality staring her in the face, she could not completely shed the possibility from her mind. But it was well past time to give up that particular fantasy. She didn’t want to live her life alone. Taking care of her cousin’s and brother’s households would not be enough forever, and as much as she loved little Archie and the girls, the children were not hers. She wanted a home and family of her own—enough to accept a new betrothal brokered by her cousin.
She felt a twinge of regret, thinking of her friends’ happiness, then quickly pushed it aside. Her two closest friends, Meg Mackinnon and Flora MacLeod, had both been fortunate enough to find love with their husbands. Ironically, Meg had married Flora’s brother Alex. Meg had two young sons, and Flora had recently given birth to twins. Lizzie was happy for them, but it made her deeply aware of all that she was missing.
But as much as she wanted what her friends had found, she had to accept that she could not wait any longer for something that might never happen.
It doesn’t matter, she told herself, determined as always to make the best of every situation. I will make my own happiness. Arranged marriage or not.
“Is something wrong, mistress?”
Lost in thought, Lizzie hadn’t realized that Alys had been watching her again. She lifted a brow. “I thought you were embroidering?”
This time Alys would not be put off. Curiosity, it seemed, had finally overridden discretion. “You keep staring at that letter as if it’s an execution warrant.”
A wry smile curved Lizzie’s mouth. “Nothing as dramatic as that, I’m afraid.” The earl would be angry, but not with her.
“Are you worried about the travel with all those horrid MacGregors scurrying about the countryside?” Alys leaned across and patted her knee. “There’s nothing to worry about. My Donnan will see that we come to no harm.”
Alys’s husband was captain of the earl’s guardsmen at Castle Campbell, and she was fiercely proud of the formidable warrior.
“No, it’s not the travel,” Lizzie assured her. They were well protected by a dozen guardsmen, and not even the outlawed MacGregors would dare attack the Earl of Argyll’s carriage. Besides, they were still in the Lowlands, well away from the Lomond Hills, where the proscribed clan was reputed to have fled following the battle of Glenfruin.
Even as news of the atrocities committed by the MacGregors at Glenfruin spread through the Highlands, it was hard for Lizzie to reconcile the man who’d come to her aid with the band of ruthless outlaws who’d perpetrated a massacre on the field of Glenfruin. In this, however, she was alone in her family. Her cousin had been charged by King James to bring the MacGregors to justice for their crimes and for the past few years had made it his mission. A mission in which her brothers Jamie and Colin had joined. It was only a matter of time before the outlaws were all hunted down.