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Graham Keep, West March,
sixty years later....
Sisters. As women, they should be compliant, deferring to their fathers and husbands. Should they lack both, then their brothers shall guide them and care for them. They should be grateful for his loving and kind protection; for the great pains he took in administering their future.
Unfortunately for Ridley Graham he was not blessed with such paragons of sisters.
Ungrateful, devious, argumentative, surly...well, one of them was surly; these were all words that described his sisters, but never compliant or appreciative.
Ridley paused outside the door to his sisters' bedchamber. He smoothed the fine whiskers of his beard thoughtfully, then adjusted the small starched ruff at his neck. It was nearly noon and he'd seen neither of his sisters nor his stepmother today. They were apparently closeted up together in their chambers, plotting against him. This avoidance did not bode well for what was to come.
It was their father's fault, Ridley knew. After Ridley's birth, Mother had suffered a succession of miscarriages. When finally she began birthing live babies again Father had come to view children differently. He loved and coddled his next three children. Never did they suffer the lash as Ridley had; never were they forced to bear Father's mockery or derision. And this was the result. Spoiled and petulant, believing they had some say in their future.
Ridley knocked briefly and entered before being granted admittance.
He paused again just inside the door to examine the scene before him. Fayth, Ridley's youngest sister, slouched in a chair near the fire. The light from the fire picked out the reddish strands in her hair, making it appear auburn rather than the drab brown it was. She looked more like a beardless lad in a kirtle than a lass overripe for marriage. Fayth's head swiveled around, her dark eyes narrowing on Ridley before turning dismissively back to contemplate the flames. Ridley's lips tightened. She'd not always been this bitter and unpleasant. When Father was dying she'd leeched onto some ruffian, claiming to love him but Ridley knew she was scrambling to find a man of her choosing before Father died. Unfortunately for her, that is her paramour had been murdered in a raid. She knew the fate Ridley had planned for her and fought against it. Insufferable little bitch. He would beat that defiance out of her spine if necessary. But not now.
He turned, facing the other occupants of the room. Two women and a man.
"Father," Ridley murmured, bowing his head to Caroline's priest, Father Jasper Graham a distant cousin on their father's side.
The tall, thin man approached Ridley, hands tucked into the sleeves of his fine green robes. "This is not what Lord Graham wanted you know this." Father Jasper's head was long and thin like his body, the cheeks hollowed. His large eyes were haunted, as if he found no solace in God's calling.
"News travels fast. I only just left the messenger from Lord Annan." Ridley shot a hard look at his young stepmother, Mona, a small woman of dark, inscrutable beauty. Her black eyes held his, condemning. Then she put her back to him and resumed brushing Caroline's long blond hair.
"My lord," Father Jasper implored, moving in front of Ridley, blocking his view of Mona and Caroline. Ridley hated the priest. He'd always championed Caroline, because of the vocation she strove for. Like-minded confederates, they were. The priest was probably the only person who knew Caroline's thoughts.
"Caroline does not wish to wed. Lord Graham asked you to care for your sisters, see to their happiness. The Lord expects you to honor your father's wishes."
Tipping his head back, Ridley stared up at the priest, annoyed at the man's manner. How dare he attempt to call forth a higher authority. Ridley was the highest authority on Graham lands now. And he was sick and tired of the usefulness of the Graham women going to waste.
"I have a duty as does every member of this family." He circled the priest and went to stand behind Caroline. Mona melted away.
Pale green eyes gazed at him from the mirror's distorted reflection, as if she had two faces, one slightly offsetting and obscuring the other.
"I am fulfilling my duty," Ridley said. "It is time you did yours. Alliances are essential for survival and I have but two sisters and many alliances to forge. You'll not deny me my right to give you away in marriage."
His sister was most unattractive manly in every way, from her long face to her oversized body. She put on no airs, was aware of her defects, and yet still carried herself with an innate confidence that other, more beautiful, women couldn't feign. It was unseemly.
"Look at you," Ridley said, his lip curling. "You hag. You should thank me for arranging this marriage. Lord Annan is said to be a kind master. He has promised not to beat you and to allow you many liberties. The messenger said the ladies find his looks pleasing."
Caroline showed no emotion, her face serene, expressionless. He was sure she practiced it in front of the mirror, this look of a martyr, of the lamb going to the slaughter.
"You know what they call you? The Pious Graham Mare. He will not trouble you overmuch with his attentions. Perhaps he will get a few heirs on you, but he will surely seek his pleasure elsewhere."
"Who has called Caroline such a thing?" Mona asked, sliding back into Ridley's field of vision.
"Suitors, who want our wealth and name, and will wed a dray horse to get it."
"Oh, you are foul," Fayth hissed behind him. "If father were alive "
"Father is dead!" Ridley nearly trembled with fury. "I am the master now. I hold your future in my hands. You will obey me, or you will be penniless."
"I choose poverty, then." Cool as water and fair as spring was Caroline's voice, like the Virgin herself addressing her people. "I will go with Father Jasper and enter a convent." She rose to her full, unnatural height, towering over everyone in the room except the priest. Father Jasper joined Caroline, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.
Ridley shook his head, laughing at himself. He'd set himself up for that one. "Sorry, Carrie, you'll not get off that easily. You are to wed Lord Annan in a fortnight."
She stared down her nose at him, managing not to look the least bit haughty. Only saintly. She did not speak.
Ridley grew impatient. It was always this way. Caroline could weigh him down in silence. He wanted to know her intentions and she would reveal nothing until she was ready. She was no saint, but a conniving demon.
"You pig!" Fayth spat. "You won't marry me off to the highest bidder. Father said I could marry as I pleased. He promised."
Ridley rounded on his little sister, as diminutive as Caroline was tall. Fayth's fists balled at her sides and her face flushed. She was the complete opposite of Caroline, unable to hide her emotions or stop a single thought from escaping her lips.
Giving in to the urge that had plagued him for the past five years, Ridley slapped Fayth, knocking her flat. Mona screamed and Caroline gasped. Ridley whirled in time to catch the horror he'd surprised Caroline into revealing before she quickly masked it with calm reproach.
She went to Fayth and knelt beside her, speaking softly. Fayth's breath hissed through her nose and teeth, murder in her eyes. But she had shut her mouth. Perhaps force was the way to deal with her.
"Ridley, please," Mona said, taking his arm and steering him toward the door. "I will talk to them, calm them."
Ridley allowed her to lead him, smiling to himself. He looked down into his stepmother's beautiful face, her troubled brow, her deep velvety eyes. Always the peacemaker. He'd been in love with her since his father had brought her home and presented her to the family. She was a Musgrave and common, but still, he had seethed with jealousy, imagining her in Father's bed the old skeletal frame of Hugh Graham rutting on her. It had made him sick. And mad with want for her. Now Father was gone. He could not marry his father's widow, but he could keep her as his mistress, if only...
"I know their manner vexes you," Mona whispered. "But you must not blame them. Your father indulged them and allowed their natures to grow strong. They'll be a match for any man and since their wit is sharp, perhaps they'll win respect, if wed to the right men."
"Respect. It is not their place to be respected. It's time for them to become meek and gentle in preparation for marriage. My rule is nothing compared to an irate husband's. They will be beaten dead within the first year of marriage. Caroline will certainly hold her own in a fight, but will end up the worse for it mark me."
"You're right, of course. I will speak to them. I think this marriage to Lord Annan is a fine thing and Caroline will come to see that, too."
"Tell Caroline that if she refuses, I'll give her the poverty she desires. She'll live alone in the tower. Under guard. She can live out her days as a dried-up old nun if she wishes but she will do it alone. I'll not even allow her Father Jasper."
Mona nodded. She started to turn away but he caught her arm.
"Tell her Lord Annan is a papist...and that she can bring Father Jasper."
"Aye, my lord." She strained against his grip.
He pulled her into the corridor. "You can save them both, you know." He dragged her against his chest, burying his face in her hair, inhaling the musky scent of her. "Tell me where it is and I will send them both abroad. I'll buy Caroline's way into the finest convent and Fayth can marry a plowboy if she desires. It's all in your hands."
She wrenched free, her face twisted in revulsion. "You'll never have it, so long as I live and breathe!" She scurried back into the room, closing the door behind her.
Caroline stared at herself in the mirror, trying not to give in to the terror gripping her heart. She'd known this day would come. Though Father had promised her she would never have to marry if she didn't wish to, and Ridley had mouthed his assurances that he would force no unwanted unions upon them, she'd known Ridley was not to be trusted. He'd always been a sly boy. Ten years Caro-line's senior, he had nevertheless been her hero when she was a child that is, until she discovered how he despised his three siblings. Caroline, Fayth, and their little brother Wesley had all been close to each other and to their father. But Ridley had stood on the outskirts of the family; even Mother had rejected him.
For years it seemed to Caroline that Ridley was only biding his time, enduring Father's instruction and advice with a patronizing smile, waiting for the day he could take charge and do things his way. And now Ridley was Lord Graham. The day Father died Ridley had installed a reformed minister in the castle's chapel, displacing Father Jasper. He'd been trying to force conversion on Caroline. Wesley had capitulated, still retaining some residual hero worship toward his big brother, and wanting to believe everything was for the best. But Fayth and Caroline held out. And now they were both to be married off in political alliances.
Mona returned. She began twisting Caroline's hair into a thick plait. "Lord Annan is Catholic. Ridley says you may take Father Jasper to Scotland."
The silence drew out, heavy.
"It is true that some husbands are harsh," Mona said. "But for most women matrimony opens a door to many possibilities."
"It didn't for you," Fayth said.
Mona's mouth thinned. "You're father's and my...
relationship was not typical."
Caroline didn't know if this were true or not, but she did know her father had treated his children far better than his wives. Caroline's mother had cried incessantly for years, then one day just stopped, and never shed another tear. She stopped speaking or running the household. Caroline had been forced to take over while Mother spent her days in the solar, creating tapestries that depicted horrifying scenes of death and dismemberment. When she'd finally passed away, quietly in her sleep, it had been a relief to all, most especially Father. Caroline caught her lips trembling and tightened them. She would not cower from Lord Annan. She would not cry.
Mona leaned close and whispered, "Surely marriage is a better thing than remaining under Ridley's rule? He will force you to repudiate the true religion, else imprison you. Your new husband will allow you to worship as you please. His people say he is fair."
"He's a Maxwell," Caroline said. "The Maxwells loathe us his people won't accept me."
"You can't do this," Fayth said, impassioned. Fayth had always thrown herself wholeheartedly into the feud with the Maxwells, but since her betrothed had been murdered by one, her hate consumed her. "Run away! I'll help you. Anything death is better than sharing a bed with a Maxwell!"
The blood feud between the Maxwells and the Grahams had been thriving for generations. Caroline wasn't even sure what had started it, only that they had raided and murdered each other since she was a child. The Maxwells were Scots godless barbarians. Her husband would rape her and be unfaithful. She would live in a hovel, dress in rags. Hysteria churned in her gut, but didn't show on the surface.
Mona touched Caroline's shoulders. "This marriage will bring peace to the clans. No more raids, no more death. You will finally heal a wound that has been open and bleeding for three score years."
Mona raised her voice, for Fayth's benefit now. "Besides...the Maxwell man Ridley holds for ransom is nothing as I expected...he seems quite civilized. He is Lord Annan's brother, Sir Patrick. I've spoken to him he tells me Lord Annan is very honorable. The ransom Ridley set for Sir Patrick's return is too steep for Lord Annan. His brother's safe return is all he requested when negotiating the marriage."
Fayth snorted, then jerked, touching her bruised jaw gingerly. "How do you know?"
Mona didn't answer, but Caroline knew Ridley would tell their stepmother anything she wanted to know, being thoroughly besotted with her. Poor Mona. She should be the only one benefiting from Father's passing, but Ridley kept her like a prisoner.
"Just think," Mona said softly. "You will be the reason Lord Annan is reunited with his brother. An auspicious beginning, to be sure. 'Twill not be so bad. You'll see. A better lot than mine." Mona looked over her shoulder at Fayth, who had wandered back over to the fireplace. "And a much better match than the one Ridley has in mind for your sister."
Caroline sighed. Perhaps Mona was right. Surely ending the feud was a good thing. Lord Annan sounded like a reasonable man. She was allowed to keep Father Jasper. And Ridley was right she was no prize. Four-and-twenty this past winter, she was no longer young. Nor was she beautiful. Lord Annan would seek his pleasure elsewhere. She could continue as always. Perhaps children would be a comfort. Mona claimed Caroline possessed hips well suited for bearing many large children and that death in childbirth would not be such a danger to her as it was to most women.
Mona returned to plaiting Caroline's hair. What if this marriage did not bring peace? What if the fires of reform engulfed Scotland and her husband repudiated God? How would she be better off than under Ridley's rule? An idea occurred to her. Upon seeing her, Lord Annan would be as disappointed about the marriage as she was. Perhaps, if he were truly a reasonable man, he would be willing to renegotiate the marriage contract.
Copyright © 2001 by Jen Holling