Authors: The Highland Bride's Choice
Copyright © 2013 by Amanda Forester
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To my husband, Edward, who is my model for every great hero, even if I can’t get him to wear a kilt.
Alnsworth Castle, 1358
“Has my betrothed brought a paramour with him?”
“I canna believe ye would even consider a man who brought a lemen wi’ him to his engagement feast.” Effie stared at her twin sister as if she had become a changeling before her eyes.
“If he was already involved wi’ another woman, I would reconsider the engagement,” said Elyne in an even tone. She lifted her arm to have her lady-in-waiting tie the sleeve of her emerald silk gown. She and her sisters, Effie and Gwyn, along with their sister-in-law, Isabelle, were dressing for the May Day feast.
“And that is all ye care about? What about compatibility? What about attraction? What about falling in love?” cried Effie. She leaned forward but was pulled back in place by the maid who was attempting to tame her curly blond hair.
“And what if that ne’er happens? Shall I ne’er wed because I dinna fall in love? Be sensible, Effie,” chastised Elyne. “My betrothed will someday be laird o’ the Grant clan and the Sherriff of Inverness. ’Tis a goodly match.” It was a sensible choice, and Elyne was a sensible lass.
“Do ye no’ want to fall in love?” asked her twin.
“It sounds like a nuisance,” said Elyne, always the more practical of the two. She smoothed back a wisp of hair, which was arranged in two plaits, with a gauzy veil covering the top of her head and flowing down. Despite having identical blond curly hair, she managed to keep her locks more contained than her sister Effie.
“Isabelle, ye married for love. Tell Elyne it is worth waiting for,” demanded Effie.
Their sister-in-law, Isabelle, smiled but shook her head. “I did marry for love, the second time at least. Elyne is right; it was a nuisance, but your brother was worth the bother.”
“See!” both twins said at the same time, choosing the parts of Isabelle’s speech that suited their own opinion.
“Your brother has chosen potential husbands for both of you. But you know he would never force you into marriage. You have the right to refuse,” said Isabelle.
“’Tis no’ fair ye both have husbands and I have no one,” Gwyn said, pouting.
“Ye can have mine if ye like,” declared Effie. “I have no intention o’ marrying some man I have ne’er met! When I wed, it will be for love and naught else.”
“Ye best shoo these romantic notions from yer head, Sister,” said Elyne. “Or ye will go to yer grave unmarried still.”
“Ye’re being hateful,” cried Effie.
“Nay, I’m being practical,” said Elyne. “If ye dinna chose a husband at the May Day festival, ye will go back home, and unless ye have found a man to wed amongst the elders, ye will be waiting another year before ye come across marriageable men again. We are nineteen years old.
. Most women our age are already married with children.”
“I do want to be married, but I wish to marry for love, like our brother did when he met Isabelle.” Effie slouched in her chair.
Isabelle laughed. “When we first met, David was laird of the Campbells and engaged to another woman, and I was an English countess married to another man. It was not an easy road.”
“But ye found true love,” reminded Effie.
“I did. But I would wish both of you an easier path toward matrimony. Do not disregard these men before you even meet them. David has made considerable effort to find you both suitable partners. And, Gwyn, who knows, a young man may catch your eye during the festivities.”
“I intend to take yer advice,” said Elyne. “I am sure Grant will be to my liking. Besides, we will have enough worries wi’ the Douglas clan in our mix.”
“Ye speak o’ that she-devil Eileen Douglas,” said Effie with a roll of her eyes. “Mean ’Leen will be sure to stir up trouble.”
“Yes, well, let us do what we can to make her feel comfortable.” Even Isabelle bit her lip.
“Have ye met her since that day…” Elyne trailed off.
“No,” said Isabelle in a soft tone. “Not since that day.”
It was a reunion that all in the Campbell household anticipated with trepidation. David Campbell had been unofficially promised to Eileen Douglas. The Douglas clan came to the Campbells’ castle expecting a wedding, but instead they got news that war with England was imminent. Instead of marrying his expected bride, David married Isabelle and claimed her inheritance, Castle Alnsworth, for Scotland, using it to defend the border from hostile neighbors.
“Mean ’Leen was mad as fire when she left,” commented Effie.
“No need to dredge up that unpleasantness,” said Isabelle briskly. “We need to do what we can to make her feel welcome.”
“I dinna ken why,” said Effie. “She was beastly to us all. Why should we have a care for her comfort?”
“Ye will do as ye ought, Effie Campbell,” demanded Elyne. “Mistress Douglas is a beast I grant ye, but she is a guest in our home and shall be treated wi’ respect.”
“Ye’re always bossing me,” complained Effie.
“Ye’re always needing it,” countered Elyne.
The discussion was interrupted by a knock from a ghillie, informing them that Mistress Douglas had several complaints about her accommodations—the fireplace was too small, the linens were uncomfortable, the provided repast was insufficient.
Isabelle sighed. “I placed the Douglas clan in the nicest rooms we have. I shall attend her.” A baby’s cry pierced the room and Isabelle picked up a hefty tot from a cradle. “Hungry again, little one?”
“He’s always hungry,” said Gwyn with a smile for the babe.
“He must learn some patience,” said Isabelle. “Could one of you hold him until I return?”
“Nay, I’ll take care o’ Mistress Douglas,” said Elyne. “Ye feed this little man.”
“Are you sure?” asked Isabelle. “She can be…”
“Wretched? Nasty? Evil?” suggested Effie.
“Effie!” silenced Elyne. “I shall be fine.”
Elyne glided from the room, leaving her sisters behind. She knew what she wanted in life. She wanted to be chatelaine of her own keep, to be a wife and mother. Her brother had arranged a suitable marriage and she was pleased with the match. Grant would be her husband, that much she knew. She only wished she felt as confident as she pretended.
Elyne took a deep breath of the cool air of the castle corridor. The smell of old stones mixed with wood smoke, the remnants of many a torch that had guided the paths of occupants long gone filled her lungs, comforting and restoring. Though Alnsworth was unknown to her, she had been raised in a castle and the smells and sounds were familiar.
Elyne stepped lightly down the corridor to the spiral staircase. The Douglas clan had been given one floor in the north tower. Naturally, Alnsworth Castle boasted several towers, built at different times and connected by a labyrinth of corridors and stairs.
Elyne got slightly turned around in the passageways, which all started to look alike, but she thought she had regained her bearings. Climbing the tower up to the fourth floor, she took a breath and gave the door a solid knock. Mistress Douglas would no doubt be displeased—she might rant, she would definitely mock and belittle—but Elyne would rather she take the brunt of the woman’s wrath than have anyone else exposed to it. It was what Elyne did. She dealt with the unpleasant and the difficult. She always had.
A muffled answer came from behind the thick oak door. She waited but no one opened the door, so she knocked again. The door was not latched so it opened a crack.
“Hello?” Elyne pushed the door open a little wider. “Mistress Douglas?”
“Come in!” called a male voice.
Elyne took a tentative step inside the room, but could not go far without running into a large trunk. The room was substantial in size, but even so, it was crowded with trunks, bags, barrels, and mattresses. Clothes spread out everywhere, laundry hanging on several lines strung across the room. Despite being certain someone was in the room, she could see no one. Little wonder the Douglas lass was upset; this could hardly meet her exacting standards.
“I am so sorry about the mess,” said Elyne. “I’ll see to having a maid, or several maids, come to help ye settle in.”
“Nay, ’tis fine. We’re used to seeing after ourselves.” A man appeared from behind one of the lines, carrying a large trunk on his shoulder, obscuring his face. Elyne took a sharp breath—the man was naked from the waist up. She stared hard at his muscular arms and chest before he disappeared behind some linens once more. Who was this man? Perhaps a ghillie for the Douglas clan?
“Is Mistress Douglas present?” asked Elyne.
“Mistress Douglas?” The man came around a large sheet and stood before her in all his naked-chested glory. He wore the kilt of a Highland, but the part of the plaid that usually was tossed over the shoulder was wrapped around his waist, the way she had seen some menfolk do when it was hot and they were working hard.
His face was pleasing, his brown eyes warm, his hair a sandy brown. He smiled, revealing a marvel of perfect white teeth. The smile made his eyes light, and Elyne could not help smiling in return, even as her cheeks burned. He wore no shirt, a fact which warranted repetition. His chest was muscular and his abdominal muscles rippling. Overall, the man was stunning.
“Ye’re no’ Mistress Douglas.” Elyne’s blush increased for having said something so obvious. He was a gorgeous man, which must have accounted for a momentary lapse in mental function.
“Aye, and ye’re no laundress,” said the man, grabbing a slightly damp shirt from the line and hauling it over his head. “I beg yer pardon, m’lady. I was not expecting visitors.”
“I fear I have gone to the wrong room.”
“Glad ye did.” The man’s smile turned into something Elyne thought she should probably avoid, and she turned on her heel to do just that.
“Here ye are, ducky,” said the laundress who chose that moment to walk into the room, a large basket of linens in her beefy arms. “I found ye some dry linens. I see ye have made do here. Poor souls, getting soaked through.”
“We crossed a river on our way and our supply wagon overturned,” explained the man to Elyne with a laugh. “Had a merry chase downstream to find it all.”
“I see ye’ve met Mistress Campbell here,” said the laundress. “Good day to ye.” The laundress marched out of the room.
“I’m Grant.” The man introduced himself with a bow. “Tavish Grant.”
“Elyne. Laird Campbell’s sister,” said Elyne with a curtsy.
“So ye be the bride!”
“Y-yes.” Elyne took another close look at Grant. Here he was, the man she would marry. Her heart thumped so noisily on her rib cage, she put a hand to her chest to try to calm it. She would marry this man. It was her duty, and she would happily oblige her family. For once, being the good daughter was actually working in her benefit.
“And we had hoped to make a good impression on ye. Too late now!” Grant gestured toward the hanging laundry and general mess of the room.
“I am sorry to disturb ye.”
“Dinna worrit yerself. Ye might as well see what ye’re in for.” Grant stepped toward her and leaned closer with a conspiratorial grin. “We are not always the cleanest lot.”
“I am sure we can set that to rights,” said Elyne with a smile of her own.
“Verra good! I’m glad to find ye a brave lass. Where are my manners? Come sit down.” Grant scanned the room for a chair, but finding none readily apparent, he motioned to the stone window seat, moving large trunks out of her way with ease.
Elyne sat across from Grant in the stone seat carved into the thick tower wall. What should she say to her intended husband? Despite his slightly ragged appearance, he was an impossibly attractive man, with a bright smile and lively eyes.
“Did ye travel long to get here?” asked Elyne to be polite and also to gauge how far from her family her new home would be.
“Aye. Been on the road a month at least.”
“I see,” said Elyne, trying not to be disheartened. Nothing was more important to her than family. The family she helped keep together after both parents died—the family she would soon have to leave.
“The roads are no’ too bad,” said Grant, as if reading her thoughts. “Should be easier to travel in the summer when the rivers aren’t quite as greedy.”
“I’m sorry yer wagon overturned in the river.”
Grant grinned. “Ne’er been more amused. My cousin, Grigor, was driving it and, oh, how he hates to get wet. He hollered something fierce when he hit the water. I fished him out before too long, but he had naught to say but what I canna repeat to ye. He doesna take to travel well.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Kind to offer, but nay. We will see to it.”
“What is it like, yer home?”
“Nice, at least I think so. But ye are always partial to yer own home. Yet I like to travel. ’Tis why I came here. I canna see myself staying too long in any one place, with so many new places to explore.”
“Truly?” If he enjoyed travel, perhaps he would take her to visit her family. “I have no’ traveled much, but I would like to try.”
“Would ye? Most womenfolk I know dinna like to leave their comforts.”
“If ye had a wife, would ye take her wi’ ye on yer travels?” Elyne smoothed her skirts and asked the question she needed to know.
“I should hope so. Would’na see much o’ the lass if I dinna take her wi’ me.”
Relief flooded through Elyne. Her intended was handsome, charming, and would allow her to visit her family. Everything was right in her world.
Loud male voices echoed up the stone staircase through the open door. “Here are the cousins returning,” said Grant. “I am sure they will wish to make yer acquaintance.”
Five men entered the room, all solid in stature. They were dressed in the great kilt of the Highlander, a fashion familiar to Elyne, who had been raised in the Highlands.
“Cousins!” greeted Grant. “Let me introduce ye to the lovely Elyne Grant.” Grant motioned to one of the men and a large man with thick black whiskers stepped closer. “Milady, may I present to ye Grigor Grant, yer intended groom.”
Elyne stifled a gasp. Her gaze slid from Grigor to Tavish and back again. Grigor Grant was a large man with broad shoulders and a bushy, black beard to match his bushy, black eyebrows. His nose was slightly crooked, as if it had been broken at some point.