Authors: Patricia Potter
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
BERKLEY SENSATION, NEW YORK
Copyright (c) 2004 by Patricia Potter
As thunder roared and lightning flashed outside the tower room, the old woman keened over the still body lying in the bed.
Her lady’s face was as pale as the death hovering about her. She had not died as planned, but she was dying nonetheless.
Siobhan Campbell had raised Lady Mary, had watched her happily marry a Maclean, only to discover her husband was a monster.
Lady Mary was as dear to her as if she were her own child.
The young lass had always been intrigued by her nurse’s “second sight” and had often asked Siobhan to tell her fortune. Only last year Siobhan had looked at her lady’s hand and seen death. To her bitter regret, she’d said nothing. She had been called witch too many times. Lady Mary had always protected her, but if she foretold a death…
She had earlier warned her lady against marrying the Maclean to no avail. Lady Mary had been dazzled by the lord’s dark good looks and had laughed at her warnings.
Bitterness and regret flooded Siobhan. She had failed to protect her charge. She looked down at her lady again. Lady Mary had been married five years, and there had been no children. Her husband wanted an heir at any cost, even the life of the lady who loved him.
But he couldn’t be seen as at blame. He had not wanted a feud with the Campbells. He had chained her to a rock to drown in the cold sea. He could then claim a tragic accident: his wife wandered on the beach and was caught by a high tide.
It would have happened as planned had not fishermen rescued her at the risk of their own lives. Her head was all that had remained above water. A few more moments and…
They had carried her back to the Campbells, to Dunstaffnage. But in the end, it hadn’t mattered. Lady Mary’s heart was broken, her spirit destroyed by terror and betrayal. She had simply given up. Fever was doing the rest.
Siobhan leaned down. “They will pay, my lady,” she whispered. “They will pay for this.”
She held Lady Mary’s hand until the last breath came. She had said she would call Lady Mary’s father when the time came, but he had been as guilty as the Maclean. He, too, had wanted the marriage. He, too, had ignored her warnings.
Siobhan leaned over and touched her lady’s cheek. Then she stood, trod slowly to the window, and looked toward the Maclean holdings many miles away. Rain pounded against the glass window. Lightning lit the land below. Still, men were mounting below. There would be retribution this night.
She opened the window and braced herself against the rush of wild wind laced with rain. The room went dark as the wind blew out the candles. She lifted her arm in the direction of the Maclean holdings.
No one would take Lady Mary’s place. Not ever.
She closed her eyes and concentrated. She knew her powers. She had kept them hidden for fear of being burned at the stake. But they were strong within her, and never more so than now.
Her fingers clenched into a fist as she shouted the words into a wild night. “No bride of a Maclean will live long or happily, and every Maclean will suffer for it.”
The sky exploded with lightning as if to acknowledge the curse. Thunder rocked the castle. The words echoed in the room, then were seized by the wind.
Tears mixed with rain, yet she knew a certain triumph. Her lady would be avenged by centuries of Maclean grief.
Scotland, 1509 A.D.
The cry tore from Felicia Campbell’s throat as she stared at the message from her uncle.
He would not do this to her. He could not do this.
Her hands crushed the parchment as if doing so would erase the words.
She never thought her uncle—and guardian—would agree to a marriage for her with a man more than three times her age. She had met this particular earl once. This chosen husband. He was a man of great girth and dirty hair, and an arrogant and cruel manner. She remembered too well how his eyes had rested on her small breasts in a way that made her shudder.
The words in the letter were stamped on her mind. “
The King wishes this marriage. It is a good alliance for the Campbells. You will be escorted to Edinburgh in a fortnight’s time for the formal betrothal
Dread as well as despair knotted her stomach. She was being sold for expediency.
As a ward, she knew she had little choice in marriage. She was no beauty, but her uncle was one of the most influential men in Scotland. And that made her not only acceptable but highly sought. An alliance with the Campbells was valuable.
Still, she had always believed her uncle would try to choose a good man as well as a wealthy one. Angus Campbell had taken her into the household after the death of his sister, Eloise, and her husband, John Campbell, of the Loudin Campbells.
But Angus Campbell was rarely at Dunstaffnage. He spent most of his time at the Scottish court in Edinburgh. When he was at home, he was indifferent toward her, but never cruel.
Felicia closed her eyes. She wanted to please her uncle. He and Jamie were all the family she had. He had taken her in and provided for her needs. But she would not marry the Earl of Morneith.
She wandered down the chilled corridor of the keep. She had to see Janet, her friend, who had retired to her chamber to read her own letter. But Janet’s was from her beloved, while Felicia’s had contained a sentence worse than death. The two messages had arrived together, both by special messenger from Edinburgh.
Felicia knocked at Janet’s door, then opened it. Janet sat on a chair and held the letter in clenched hands. “Jamie will be a few days longer in London,” she said. “We will have to delay the wedding.”
“I’m sorry,” Felicia said, desperately wishing she had such a problem. To love the man she was to marry. What a wonder that would be.
Janet and her family had been visiting Dunstaffnage to complete the marriage formalities and await the arrival of Jamie, who had been in London on an errand for the king. Then Felicia’s uncle had been suddenly summoned to Edinburgh by King James, and Janet’s father left as well. Janet had begged to stay another week to work on her wedding gown.
Janet looked up from the letter to meet Felicia’s gaze. “What is wrong? What did your uncle say? Is it anything about Jamie?”
Wordlessly, Felicia handed her letter to Janet.
Janet’s face clouded as she read it, then asked in her soft, gentle voice, “What are you going to do?”
Felicia shrugged hopelessly.
Janet reached out a hand to her. “I wish … I wish you could be as happy as I am.”
“I am glad you are. Jamie loves you.” She tried to smile, though her heart was breaking into a hundred pieces.
Janet didn’t say anything. She had also been at grand events the earl attended. She had seen him as well. And had probably heard tales of his debauchery. “What can you do?”
Felicia shook her head.
“If only Jamie were here—”
“He isn’t,” Felicia said bleakly. Janet believed Jamie could solve every problem. She herself had, as well. But how could he defy the king?
“The letter said you must be ready in a fortnight.”
Two weeks before my life ends
. Her mind worked frantically. She had always known that her one worth to her uncle was marriage, an alliance. But she also knew that she was plain at best and not much of an enticement to prospective husbands. She had hoped …
She didn’t know what she had hoped. But she certainly hadn’t expected him to arrange a marriage with someone so … appalling. Her uncle said in the letter that the king wanted this marriage, but she also knew the king needed her uncle.
If only Jamie were here. He was more brother than cousin. He had lost two sisters in their infancy and had readily taken to the role of her protector since the first day she came to Dunstaffnage as a heartbroken and confused child of five.
Her uncle had approved. It relieved him of the responsibility. And as long as Jamie performed well in military arts, Angus Campbell paid little attention to his outside activities.
He did not know—at least Felicia did not believe he knew—that his only son had taught Felicia to fight, to use the bow, the sword. Nor did he care that Jamie had taught Felicia to read, when Angus believed women should not bother with such things.
Amazingly, she was very good at the former and even better at the latter, a fact that had amused her cousin, as had her interest in healing. Nairna, the healer, had been her friend and taught her the healing arts.
Jamie had treated her as an equal, or almost as an equal. He hadn’t cared that she was plain, that her red hair was untamable and that she had few of the womanly attributes that most men admired in a woman.
Morneith would care little about her unorthodox skills. He would want a wife to serve his needs, to produce more heirs.
Again her mind went to Jamie. But what could he do? She knew neither King James nor her uncle were men to be defied. She would not want Jamie to lose his head for her.
She must help herself. And she had only two weeks to do so.
She tried to smile, but knew she failed miserably. She wanted to cry, but Campbell women did not cry. “I will not,” she said again. “I will not marry him.”
“But the king—”
“He can do nothing if I am not here.” Ideas were already forming in her mind. Anything would be better than marriage to the earl. Anything!
She would go to a convent first and ask for sanctuary.
That was the answer. She would far prefer that to being wed to a beast.
There was one not twenty-five miles away.
She would pack tonight. Ride out tomorrow. She and Janet often went riding, though there was usually a guard with them. She would have to find a way to distract the guard.
Would Janet help? Her friend was shy, even timid, respectful of duty and authority. Yet she had a sweetness and loyalty that won hearts. Felicia had often puzzled over their friendship because they were so opposite. But mayhap that was also the attraction.
Felicia would lose even
She took the letter from Janet.
Janet stared at her, dismay written on her face. “How can you leave?”
Felicia spoke rapidly, spewing words before thinking them through. “You and I go riding with a groom each morning. Perhaps I can trick him and ride toward the closest convent.”
“They will not take you without a dowry,” Janet said. “I know my father had to pay one for my cousin.”
“I have some jewelry from my mother,” Felicia said.
“They would not defy the king.” Janet tried another tack.
Her friend was right. Few in Scotland would. If she were to escape, she must flee to outside the king’s—and Morneith’s—reach. If she could reach Jamie in London, he might be able to help her flee to France without anyone finding out.
“Will you help me?” she asked Janet. “You would have to go riding with me. You can take one of the slower mares, then you can say I fled. You could not keep up.”
“I wish Jamie were here,” Janet said.
“I am glad he is not. He would be risking his life if he defied the king.”
“And he would,” Janet said. “He would defy both his father and the king for you.” She hesitated, then said in a small voice, “Of course, I will help.”
Felicia felt terrible. She knew what it took for Janet to utter those words. She wanted to withdraw the request, but she needed Janet’s help too badly. She would make sure no blame came to her friend.
“I will have to sew my jewels in my cloak and decide what I can take with me.”
“I will help you,” Janet said, her voice more sure now that she had made the decision to help.
Still, Felicia saw the apprehension in her friend’s eyes. Guilt as sharp as a knife thrust deep inside her.
But she knew she would never be allowed to leave the castle walls alone. She also knew she had to move quickly.
She and Janet supped alone with only her maid in attendance. She had no desire to dine in the great hall with the rowdy men at arms. Not tonight.
They usually dined well, and tonight was no exception. Felicia treasured every bite, knowing that she probably would not have such fare again soon. Mutton and capons, salmon, pears and apples, and freshly baked bread and tarts. Her uncle insisted on having a good cook, since he often entertained other Highland families and even the king on occasion. The cook, Sarah, was rightfully proud, even arrogant, and refused to allow anyone in the kitchen other than her chosen helpers.
Felicia had attempted to visit and learn more about the kitchen, but she was always rebuffed. She’d been rebuffed by everyone when she wanted to be helpful. Everyone but the healer and Jamie.
Apprehension whittled away at Felicia’s appetite, but she knew she needed to eat. She would eat well on the morn as well, for she would be running for her life.
Janet darted sympathetic glances at Felicia as she took one bite, then another. After she had eaten all she could, she took the remaining bread and wrapped it in a piece of cloth. She would take it with her tomorrow.