Authors: Claire Delacroix
Tags: #Highlands, #Medieval
More cherished than gold are the jewels of Kinfairlie, and only the worthiest may fight for their love…
The Laird of Kinfairlie has helped his sisters, each a gem in her own right, to find husbands. Now the laird himself seeks to wed, and pins his hopes on…
THE SNOW WHITE BRIDE
Lady Eleanor knows better than to dream of romance and love. Married twice to secure her father's alliances, she has learned that she is desirable only for her fortune. When the Laird of Kinfairlie's sisters ask her to wed their brother, Alexander, Eleanor agrees, expecting only to save herself from danger. But Alexander is like no man she's known before, a man more interested in courting her smile than her obedience, a man who values her counsel as much as her newly awakened passion… and a man unaware that Eleanor is the key to a fortune that could ensure the future of everything he holds dear. Now, ruthless enemies will stop at nothing to secure Eleanor's capture. Will she dare to trust her new husband before it's too late for her, for Alexander, and for Kinfairlie?
Kinfairlie, Scotland—December 24, 1421
he snow was falling fast and thick,
the starless sky was darker than indigo, and it was well past midnight when Eleanor knew that she could flee no farther. The small village that rose before her seemed heaven-sent: it was devoid of tall walls and barred gates. She did not believe that it truly could be this peaceful anywhere in Christendom, but the town’s tranquillity was seductive all the same.
She did not know its name and she did not care. She spied the church and decided immediately that this sleeping town, with its quiet surety that the world was good, would be the place she chose to rest.
The night would not last much longer, for darkness already gave way to dawn’s light. Eleanor did not know where she would go from here, but knew she could make no decision when she was so exhausted.
The church portal was unlocked, and Eleanor sighed with relief as one last fear was proved groundless. She stepped into its embracing shadows and let the door close
heavily behind her. She waited, half-expecting the illusion of tranquillity to be shattered, but only silence reached her ears. She stood on the threshold and inhaled deeply of the scent of beeswax candles, the air of prayer and devotion, the aura of a holy place.
There was a single small glass pane over the altar, and the light cast by the snow illuminated it and the chapel’s bare interior. It was a humble church, to be sure, for she could see its emptiness even in the shadows. The altar was devoid of chalice and monstrance, evidence that even this community believed that treasures should be locked away.
Eleanor spied the bench near the altar, perhaps one used by the priest, and eased herself onto it. She sat down and stopped running for the first time in what seemed an eternity.
Then she listened, fearing the worst.
There was no sound at all beyond the pounding of her heart. No hoofbeats echoed in pursuit. No hounds bayed as they found her scent. No men shouted that they had spied her footprints.
The rapidly falling snow might prove a blessing, for it would quickly hide her path and disguise her scent. She sat, intending to wait the necessary interval until she knew that she was safe.
Eleanor felt every ache in her exhausted body, and she realized only now how cold she had become. She could not feel her fingertips, so she crossed her arms and pressed her hands into her underarms. She supposed that her belly must be empty, but she was too numb to be certain. She had a keen thirst, to be sure.
Had it only been three days and nights since everything had changed, and changed irrevocably? She shied away from considering what would happen to her now, was too tired to speculate beyond the nigh impossible goal of escape.
Instead, she sat and marveled that she could hear only the faint roll of the sea. It was a gentle sound, its effect not unlike a lullaby. Was it possible that Ewen’s kin had abandoned the hunt for her?
Eleanor could not believe as much. She sat vigilant and she listened, but slowly she began to feel warmer. That warmth betrayed her, undermined her resolve to remain awake, coaxed her to succumb to exhaustion. She fought against slumber, but she had endured too much of late. It was not long before she gathered her booted feet beneath her, wrapped her ermine-lined cloak more tightly about herself, and dared to consider sleeping for the first time since Ewen had died.
Although she murmured a prayer, Eleanor did not pray for her husband’s recently departed soul. She knew that Ewen was lost beyond redemption, she knew that he roasted in hell.
Worst of all, Eleanor knew that, deep in her heart, she was glad. She was also sufficiently wicked to believe that he deserved no less.
With the dawn, she would begin to atone for her sins of thought and deed. In this moment, she managed only to draw her hood over her hair before her eyes closed and she welcomed the bliss of sleep.
he first morning services
in Kinfairlie’s chapel were attended mostly by the women, both from the keep and from the village, and though it was the day of Christmas Eve, this morning was no different.
Madeline arrived with her sisters: Vivienne, Annelise, Isabella, and Elizabeth. Both Madeline and Vivienne were ripening with child, though the other sisters were yet maidens. They were a noisy party, for Madeline and Vivienne had not been home to Kinfairlie since their nuptials earlier in the year, and all five sisters chattered even as they arrived in the village chapel.
The woman kneeling before the altar started at the sound of their arrival. She caught her breath and glanced over her shoulder, fear etched on her features.
She was so beautiful that Madeline gaped in astonishment.
And she was a stranger. There were few strangers in Kinfairlie, particularly at this time of the year. Madeline was intrigued, as was probably every other soul who followed the Lammergeier sisters into the chapel.
This woman was no maiden, for she wore a gossamer veil and circlet over her hair. What Madeline could spy of the woman’s hair was more golden of hue than flaxen. In that moment that she stared at the sisters, Madeline noted skin so fair that the woman might have been carved of alabaster. Her eyes were a startlingly vivid green and her lips as red as rubies. She might have been of an age with Madeline.
But the stranger’s fear was almost palpable. She pivoted abruptly after scanning the arrivals. She drew the hood of her sapphire cloak over her hair to hide her features, and bent to her prayers once more. Madeline wondered what horrors this woman had faced that she should be so fearful of strangers.
The woman’s cloak was remarkable in itself, of wool spun finer than fine, and trimmed with a king’s ransom in ermine. The stranger was noble, then, for no common person could have afforded such a garment.
Yet she was unattended, and there was no fine horse outside the chapel. Surely such a woman would not travel on foot, or alone?
Not unless she was in dire peril. Madeline caught her breath at the simple truth of it, and immediately she yearned to be of aid. Indeed, any other noblewoman would have rapped on the gates of the keep and demanded hospitality of a fellow Christian.
But this woman had no steed. Her boots were mired, there was dirt on the hem of her cloak. She must have been afraid to ask for help, which said little good about her circumstance.
Father Malachy granted the praying woman a benign smile, then frowned at the boisterous sisters. Madeline and her sisters meekly genuflected and became silent as mice as they took their places at the front of the chapel, alongside the stranger. Madeline could fairly feel the questions of her sisters, and was not surprised to find herself eased closest to the stranger by mutual and silent consent.
As eldest, she had been appointed to learn more.
The service seemed impossibly long, and Madeline found herself thinking more about the stranger beside her than her prayers. Finally the priest was done and the woman tried to leave the chapel immediately behind him.
The sisters had other ideas. The stranger jumped when
Madeline touched her elbow, even with the barrier of that cloak between them. When the stranger paused, Annelise and Isabella slipped around her to block her exit from the chapel.
“You are unknown here,” Madeline said.
The woman’s eyes widened at the realization that she had been surrounded, though she nodded acknowledgment. “I mean no harm to any soul. I halted only to pray.” She tried to leave, but the sisters stood resolute.
“Someone means harm to you, though,” Vivienne said with conviction. “You would not have sought sanctuary in the house of God otherwise.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Who are you, and with whom are you allied?”
“Do you not know where you have come?” Madeline asked.
The woman shook her head.
That in itself was intriguing. She must be far from home indeed. What would compel her to flee into the night without a clear destination? Madeline herself had done as much once and felt a certain kinship with this woman as a result.
“I am Madeline FitzHenry, once of Kinfairlie and now Lady of Caerwyn,” she said, softening her words with a smile. “These are my sisters. We are gathered to celebrate the Yule together in our ancestral home of Kinfairlie and mean no harm to any guest of our hall.”
“Kinfairlie.” The woman’s gaze flicked between them. “You must be kin with the Lammergeier then. I have heard tales of them.”
“Lammergeier is our family name,” Vivienne agreed.
The woman took a deep breath as if to steady herself,
as if the news of where she stood was unwelcome. “The Lammergeier are said to ally long with no man.”
“That is a somewhat harsh charge from one who does not know us
,” Isabella began, but Madeline laid a hand upon her arm to silence her.
“Of what import is our alliance? Have you need of aid?” Madeline asked. “Do you fear someone who might have allies in these parts?”
The woman gathered her skirts and made again to leave. “I thank you for your concern, but it would be safer for you to know no more of me.” She pivoted and Isabella and Annelise, faced with her determination, stepped out of her path. The chapel had emptied now, save for the sisters and this woman who strode away from them with the grace of a queen.
“And what would be safer for you?” Madeline asked quietly, her words carrying through the chapel.
“Tell us who you flee and why,” Isabella said, always unafraid of such details.
The woman paused, seemingly tempted. “How do I know that I can trust you?”
“Who else can you trust?” Madeline asked. “You have not so much as a steed, let alone a maid, to accompany you. I would wager that you cannot run much farther than you already have. I would further wager that you are in peril. We offer aid to you.”
The woman’s strength seemed to falter then, and she looked at the stone floor. Madeline stretched a consoling hand toward her, but then the stranger straightened and tossed back her hood.
She spoke with a regal resolve. “My tale is not that uncommon. My father wed me to a man of his choice, a
man far, far older than myself. When I was widowed some years later, my father wed me to another man.”
“Who also died,” Vivienne said, guessing the next part of the story as she was inclined to do.
“But not before my father himself died. I have no other kin than my husband’s family: my mother died long ago and neither of my husbands granted me a child.”
“Surely your dowry once again becomes your own?” Isabella asked.
The woman’s smile was wry. “Surely not.” Something flashed in her eyes then, a determination that was greater than any fear, and Madeline guessed that the woman did not like her husband’s kin. Her dislike must have been potent for her to abandon her dowry.
“It has long been said that a woman weds once for duty and once for love,” Vivienne said.
To be wed twice for duty is beyond expectation.”
“And against my every desire!” the woman said, her eyes flashing. “I have done all that I can to avoid such a fate. I have left my old abode with only the garb upon my back, I have abandoned what should be my own, but it is not sufficient for them. They pursue me, like hounds at the hunt. Indeed, I dare not confess the name of that holding to any soul,
lest they find me again.” Her li
ps tightened with a quiver that rent Madeline’s heart.
“You have need of protection, not further flight,” Madeline said.
“Who would be so foolish as to protect me?”
“A new husband would defend you,” Vivienne said.
“One of your own choice!” Elizabeth interjected.
“Impossible.” The woman shook her head. “I am sorry. I should not have burdened you with my woes.”
“But where will you go?” Elizabeth asked.
“As far as I must,” she said, and gathered her cloak about herself as she hastened down the aisle. “I dare not linger here longer. Only as far as Kinfairlie,” she whispered, almost to herself. “They will be fast behind me.” She drew up her hood and reached for the handle upon the heavy wood door.
“We cannot let her go,” Madeline said, and her sisters nodded agreement. “She will never flee farther than they can follow.”
“Surely her fears are overwrought,” Vivienne said. “Her husband’s kin might have threatened her, and they might even follow her, but as soon as she wed another man, they would abandon the chase. It would not be reasonable to do otherwise, especially if they already hold her dowry.”
“Doubtless she has had little chance to muster her thoughts,” Madeline mused, feeling sympathy for the woman. “I wonder when last she ate a meal.”
“Or slept, without fearing that her avaricious kin would pounce upon her in the night.” Vivienne shivered at the prospect.
“She has need of a stalwart defender,” Elizabeth said with gusto. “Like a valiant knight in an old tale, one who will vanquish all of her enemies.”
“It will be a rare and honorable man who takes her cause,” Annelise agreed.
“It will be a bold man, unafraid to face any foe to see his lady’s safety assured,” Elizabeth said, her love of tales evident. “He will slaughter dragons for her, and send evil flying from the gates!”