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Time did not reveal the flaws Luc was certain Tullymullagh must hide. The high vaulted hall was simple, yet gracious; the richly embroidered tapestries hanging on the walls were beyond elegant. The stone fireplaces at either end of the hall were carved with marvelous skill, the linen adorning the dais table was rich.
Indeed, this tangible reminder of all he had abandoned made simple, charming Llanvelyn seem a paltry prize. Luc cursed his own traitorous thoughts and scanned the contents of the hall with disapproval.
There had to be some slight he could dislike.
Certainly, the lines of knights, even their squires and pages, were outfitted in fine fashion. Their armor gleamed, and their tabards were lavishly embroidered. Luc supposed they were all pledged to his sire's hand, regardless of what loyalty they felt within their hearts. His sire, however foolish with women, was not one to be remiss in matters of such tactical import.
Just the thought of his father was a welcome reminder of how brutal the nobility could be, regardless of how fine their quarters. Luc, scanning the hall for some sign of Gavin, still did not see the man. 'Twas no coincidence that his sire avoided him thus far, Luc knew well enough.
Gavin would see his own desire fulfilled first. The nobility, after all, cared for themselves alone. Luc's lips thinned.
If naught else, 'twas clear that if this Princess Brianna desired attention, she had gained her full measure on this day. Not only was the hall packed to capacity, but all were garbed in their richest finery. Damask gleamed on all sides, the lustre of silk shot through more than one garment, feathers bobbed and jewelsflashed. Though Luc's simple clothing was his best, it paled in comparison.
But he did not care.
He would not care.
Luc spotted the familiar crest of Montvieux and guessed that his brother would know Gavin's whereabouts. As he strode across the hall, Luc noted that Burke had changed little over the years since last their paths had crossed. Broader of shoulder than he had been all those years past, with a few threads of silver at his temple, Burke had, if anything, grown yet more handsome.
Which was reassuring. This troublesome princess would not be able to resist Burke, Luc decided. She would take one look at the three of them and melt with desire for the noble, chivalrous, prosperous Burke. Then, Luc would settle the issue of Llanvelyn with Gavin and head home in short order.
To ensure the sheaves were stacked properly. Luc pushed that prospect of delight from his mind, and looked hopefully for his father's shadow behind the favored son. He was only to be disappointed.
But Burke smiled and closed the distance between them, lithe grace in his every step. "Greetings, Luc, 'tis long since we have met."
"Indeed." Luc shook the proffered hand. His brother's grip was sure, and he felt again that old admiration that Burke had steered his course well through waters Luc had chosen not to navigate. "How fares your dame, Margaux?"
"Well enough. And Llanvelyn?"
Luc nodded. "The season was a good one. Have you seen Gavin?"
"Not yet this day." Burke turned his gaze, assessing as he glanced over Luc's garb. "I could lend you a tabard, if you desire."
Luc shook his head stubbornly. His linen shirt was clean, his green wool tabard and darker green hose were unadorned, but suited his life well. His leather boots were rougher than Burke's, which doubtless had been fashioned in some Italian city, but were functional.
Even without spurs.
"There is no need," Luc declined firmly, refusing to give any credence to a whisper in the back of his mind. "I am what I am. The woman might as well see as much."
Burke smiled wryly. "And may the best man win her hand?"
"And may you win her hand," Luc corrected, seeing no risk in letting his true feelings show. "And quickly, if you please. Llanvelyn awaits my return."
Burke frowned. "I understood there was a steward there."
"Pyrs died two years past." Luc's words were curt, the only sign of how deeply the old man's passing had affected him.
Burke watched him for a long moment, but Luc frowned and looked again for his father.
"And you have no regrets in the choice you once made," Burke finally commented, his idle tone not disguising his interest.
"I?" Luc shook his head and his words were emphatic. "Nary a one."
A gleam of appreciation lit Burke's eye. "Who would have imagined such a simple life would suit you?"
"It suited my mother and her family well enough."
"Hmmm. So, here you stand, garbed like a farmer amidst wealth and privilege, untroubled by the disparity." There was a note of mild wonder in Burke's tone. "You are a nobler man than I, Luc Fitzgavin."
Luc smiled. "I doubt that."
Burke's gaze was steady as he smiled slightly himself. "The most astonishing thing is that you begrudge me naught."
Luc shrugged easily, never having seen any reason to be jealous of his brother's many accomplishments. "We are different men, Burke, born of different women, raised in different ways. 'Tis only good sense that our lives should differ as well."
"Once they did not," Burke noted softly. Luc stiffened at the reminder and looked away, but Burke would not leave it be. "You could have won all I call my own by now, or perhaps more, if you had not given up your blade." A lump rose in Luc's throat but he kept his expression grim. "Luc, you have to know that your talent was rare," Burke added.
"Perhaps." Luc cleared his throat. "But 'twas not a life that suited me as well as it evidently does you."
"Is that the truth?" Burke glanced away, dissatisfaction in the line of his lips. 'Twas not an expression Luc had seen upon Burke's visage before, but a fanfare of trumpets sounded before he could ask after it.
The assembly turned as one to face the dais. Tullymullagh's elderly steward appeared at Luc's elbow, tsking under his breath. "Quickly, quickly! Over here, both of you. Now, where is the third? There must be a third!"
The steward clucked his tongue, anxiously eyeing the assembly. The crowd fell back behind the two brothers, just as that sought-after third man joined the pair, his russet hair gleaming.
Rowan. Luc flicked a curious glance to his youngest brother, as tall and handsome as ever. Luc was surprised to see that Rowan's usual cavalier smile was lacking.
'Twas clear that Rowan was here against his own desire, as well. Luc's lips thinned at the reminder, and he folded his arms across his chest at the inconvenience wreaked upon them all.
"There!" the steward crowed. "Now, come along, come along, we must not keep Princess Brianna waiting on this day of days."
She could not wait, but they had been compelled to travel long and far to serve her will. The spoiled princess of Tullymullagh had indeed made all dance to her willful tune.
Luc imagined a sullen and demanding woman, pointing petulantly to all she desired and winning it each time. She was likely ancient and unable to make a fitting match in any way other than this frivolous game. Or pretty but with the wits of a stone, insistent that all made her the center of attention.
The center of attention she would evidently be on this day, at least. Luc folded his arms across his chest and impatiently waited out the moments until he could consult with his sire.
The minstrels plucked a tune and every head lifted in anticipation. A bevy of maidens burst into the hall, spilling flowers to the left and the right, their hair bedecked with ribbons. New garments for this very day, Luc concluded, disgusted with the cavalier waste of hard coin.
"The lady Brianna," bellowed the steward, "Princess of Tullymullagh!"
With that, the most beautiful woman Luc had ever seen stepped through the portal into the hall. The princess smiled shyly as she descended the stairs from the solar. She stepped on to the dais with the grace of a swan, and Luc's protesting thoughts screamed to a halt.
Luc stared, for he could have done naught else.
Brianna was the perfect, tiny fairy queen of Pyrs' bedtime tales. Luc had never imagined that such beauty could exist outside of fanciful stories and was clutched with a desire so primal that it curled his toes.
Indeed, the admiration flooding through Luc put his response to Tullymullagh to shame.
Luc's heart began to pound as he sought some flaw or hint that he had named her wrong. But nay. The lady Brianna's face grew only more fair as he looked longer upon it. Her hands were as delicate as butterflies, her skin as creamy as new milk. Her smile was heart-wrenchingly innocent, her cheeks flushed slightly with attention of all fixed upon her. Her green surcoat was laced tightly at the sides and revealed her slender curves.
Luc could imagine her curled up to sleep in a flower bud all too readily.
She was not at all the woman he had anticipated.
Luc swallowed and reminded himself that this was the selfish woman who would make them all do her bidding. No doubt her temperament was an unattractive one and her heart as dark as her face was fair. She would be selfish and indulged, slow of intellect. This was not a woman given to conversation or likely even one who would permit her loveliness to be marred by the rigors of childbirth.
Even knowing that, Luc could not cease his staring.
"She is a beauty," he whispered in wonder, without even meaning to do so.
"I suppose." Burke shrugged with an indifference that Luc found hard to match. "But beauty is as beauty does."
Aye, 'twas much Luc's own conclusion and reassuring to have Burke give the thought voice. He glanced at his brother. "But you will still wed her when she chooses you?"
Burke flicked a telling look Luc's way. "You presume much, Luc."
"Do not be so modest, Burke." Rowan's murmured comment barely carried to their ears. "If she has not the wits to make a sensible choice, no doubt there are those who will make the decision for her."
Rowan looked at Luc and that familiar roguish twinkle glinted in his dark eyes. "She will choose neither a farmer nor a bastard rogue, of that you may be certain," the man continued. "Nay, Burke, 'twill be you burdened with the duty of deflowering this beauty."
The very thought made Luc's heart clench in a most unexpected manner. What was wrong with him? Women never had such an effect upon him. Had he caught some ague upon the ship?
That would be another inconvenience to lay at this lady's feet. Luc's lips thinned grimly, and he looked back to the perfection of the princess. To his own surprise, annoyance toward his brother Burke stirred to life within him for the very first time in all his days.
'Twould be Burke who would meet this beauty at the altar; Burke who would bed her; Burke who would look upon her lovely face for the rest of her days. It did not seem right that Burke did not appreciate her allure.
As Luc would have done.
That thought brought Luc up short. How could such senselessness invade his thoughts? He folded his arms across his chest and glared at the lovely noblewoman, deeming her responsible for addling his wits.
Brianna looked over to the brothers with open curiosity. She would not even glance at him, Luc well knew. Aye, she would weigh her choices by their outward appearance, caring naught for the inner man. 'Twould be Burke's evident wealth and success that would draw her eye, Luc knew it.
What he did not know was why that troubled him so.
The lady looked at Rowan and smiled with a politeness that wrenched Luc's heart. She looked at Burke and he was certain her gaze brightened with the surety of the choice she must make.
Then she glanced at Luc. A jolt ripped through him as their eyes met. Her full lips parted ever so slightly and Luc had the distinct sense that they were the only two in the hall.
And Brianna smiled, the gesture curving her lips as slowly as dawn slips over the horizon. Luc could not bring himself to look away.
'Twas suddenly cursedly warm.
Luc knew well enough that he was not a handsome man, though neither was he that hard upon the eyes. He was tall enough and his shoulders were broad enough, though his features lacked the chiseled perfection of Burke's profile.
Indeed, Luc was possessed of a grand nose.
And a shock of white, white hair above his right brow. Pyrs had called it a mark of uncommon fortune; Gavin dismissed it as a curse. Otherwise Luc was dark of hair and blue of eye and not particularly distinctive to his own thinking. 'Twas clearly the oddities of his appearance that held the woman's gaze.
Perhaps he should have accepted Burke's offer of finer garb.
"Ladies and lords, damsels and knights," Brianna began, her voice pitched lower than Luc had expected. 'Twas quite a pleasant voice, actually, and hinted at a cleverness unexpected.
The assembly applauded politely, but Luc could not move. Indeed, it seemed Brianna addressed him directly, though Luc could not imagine why.
'Twas Burke she would choose, after all. And he would be glad to see the matter resolved.
"I bid you welcome to the keep of Tullymullagh," Brianna said with a minute nod at Luc. "And I hope the hospitality of the hall has not failed you." She held his gaze for a long moment, as though inquiring after his own treatment and Luc found himself nodding ever so slightly.
Her smile broadened as though she were pleased and Luc's heart skipped in a most unexpected way.
Aye, a chill from the ship. It could be no more than that.
"On this day, many have gathered in the hopes of witnessing a wedding, but I fear I must disappoint you all." Brianna smiled into Luc's eyes, a vision of feminine softness, as though inviting him alone to indulge her.
And he was sorely tempted to grant this princess whatever she desired. Luc scowled at his own gullibility. An agitated murmur rippled through the crowd and he belatedly understood the princess' words.
"You were bidden to choose a spouse from my sons!" Gavin declared, stepping into view for the first time. The steward frowned, but Gavin shoved his way to Brianna's side.
Luc was not surprised to see that his father's rough manner had changed little. He took a half step forward, but the lady gave Gavin a quelling look.
"Which does not ensure the wedding be performed on this day," she declared with resolve. She tossed back her veil, the move revealing the end of a blond braid, then fixed the trio of brothers with a bright glance.
And she looked again to Luc. His mouth went dry to be so singled out. "I will take no man to wed who has not proven himself to me," Brianna declared. "As I know naught of the three of you beyond your pedigree--" her expression and quick glance to Gavin made her opinion of that clear "--I can only grant a fitting test of your suitability as spouse."
The murmur became a growl as the assembly exchanged comments on this unforeseen development. They had come for a wedding and were to be cheated of it.
But Luc found himself surprisingly intrigued. Perhaps he had been too quick to condemn the lady's intellect.
And that alone was most interesting.
Brianna raised her voice with determination over the rumbling, clearly not one