Shadows dappled the
earth as the MacThomaidh entourage arrived at London’s Brentwood
Estate. Duncan found it difficult to believe a fortnight had passed,
though his backside assured him otherwise. He grumbled, "It seems I
just began this journey from hell and we are here already." Riding
abreast of his men, his eyes took in his betrothed’s home. "Bloody
hell," he grumbled. "Those perfect trees probably took some poor
servant a sennight to trim." He shot a look at his father.
"Pretentious, as I imagine her to be. The last attribute He groaned.
"I needs must relinquish my freedom to obtain this Englishwoman’s
hefty dowry. Yet her family throws coin around as if they have an
All he’d ever wanted
was a woman to love much like his friend’s wife, Tory. She was
charming, a healer, and a natural born storyteller. Everything a man
would ever want. Well, she was a hellcat, but a man could overlook a
few flaws for perfection in everything else.
He certainly never
planned to wed a woman he never met. He knew nothing about his
betrothed except her name—Catherine Gillingham. Even that sounded
pretentious. Did she dread the marriage as much as he? Or was she so
meek she did all bidding without question? Considering the English’s
hatred of Scots, he couldn’t imagine her being pleased at the
prospect. After living in such luxury, she’d find things different
in the Highlands. She’d see no excess in his home.
Duncan stripped off
his clothes and climbed into bed. He stretched his large frame and
laced his hands behind his head, certain he’d have the last laugh.
Now he could sleep.
stared out her chamber window at white clouds floating in the clear
blue sky. She listened as birds chirped happily. Such a beautiful
day and yet it would be the worst day of her life. Her brother,
Trevor, sat on her unmade bed. She knew he made an effort to cheer
her, but his silence told her he could think of no comforting words.
Struggling to regain
her poise, she turned to face him and wiped away tears.
"Trevor, what shall I
He rose and came to
her side, holding her securely in his embrace. "Shh, Cat." He
carefully ran his hands over her long, dark brown hair, cascading
down her back. Her lady’s maid Rowena had scattered seed pearls
throughout and they shimmered with every movement. Trevor gently
brushed back soft wisps of hair at the sides of her face, one stray
lock coming loose on her forehead.
Fear of the unknown
welled within her. "Oh Trev, I assumed Father would secure a good
husband for me. Not be bartered off by Edward to some Scottish
heathen in payment for Scotland’s loyalty." She sobbed, "Why can I
not marry Marquess Pemberly? Have I aimed my sights too high? Jason
cares for me."
Trevor said nothing,
but stroked his hand over her back. She took his silence as
agreement. "What about Lightsey? I overheard Jeremy ask Father for
"Aye, I was…"
"I do not eavesdrop,
Trevor Gillingham. I glean facts," she huffed. "And the few I
learned of this marriage make me wish to escape to a convent."
She buried her face
in his shoulder.
"We have no choice,
Cat. Edward decreed it."
"Blast the king!"
Trevor whipped his
head around to search the doorway, his face drained of color. "Hush,
Cat. The king has ears everywhere. You must watch what you say, for
all our sakes."
Catherine flung her arms around her older brother’s neck and sobbed.
"How shall I manage without you? You were the one constant in my
life." She raised tear-filled eyes.
He held her, giving
her no doubt he relinquished his role as protector reluctantly.
"You shall be fine,"
he said, his voice soothing, although she steeled herself against
the words. "You can handle anything you set your mind to."
"What if…?" Words
failed her. She tightened her grip around his neck. As a child, he’d
protected her. He no longer lived at home, but she had only to send
for him and he came. Their bond strong, she’d thought nothing would
separate them. Until now.
When the priest asked
for Catherine’s voice of consent, her eyes slipped sideways to
appraise the angry man beside her. His stony silence seemed as
eloquent as any bard’s tale. He wanted nothing to do with her.
He’d not joined them
at supper the prior eve, so she’d still seen only his back and
profile. His dark brown hair fell to his shoulders. When her father
escorted her to the chapel’s outer steps, she’d noticed the man’s
height and the breadth of his shoulders. He was large, taller than
her father or brother. He wore a white linen shirt with a blue and
green plaide revealing long, strong legs. His profile looked
chiseled in rock, clearly revealing his anger.
She feared her knees
might buckle. How could she bear the burden of her father’s
expectations to wed as the king decreed? He’d been in Edward’s favor
for years. Couldn’t he have changed the king’s mind? Was being
granted a new title and another estate more important than his own
daughter’s happiness? His sharp admonition ‘to make me proud’ echoed
in her mind.
Her eyes sought her
father’s, pleading for a final reprieve.
Shoulders stooped in
defeat, Catherine turned back to face Brentwood’s priest. It felt
like forever, yet mere moments had passed.
Her voice cracking,
she barely whispered the words that would forever alter the course
of her life. "I will."
The man beside her
stood rigid as she gave her response. He exhaled loudly and said
through clenched teeth, "Aye, I will."
The priest completed
the holy message despite the palpable tension, then moved inside the
chapel to offer communion and bless the marriage.
believe the priest’s audacity when at ceremony’s end he smiled at
Duncan and said, "You may give your bride the kiss of peace."
Duncan eyed the
priest as if he’d lost his mind, then turned for the first time to
face his lady wife.
Trying to keep his
expression unreadable, his gaze traversed the length of her body,
stopped at her breasts, her hips. Seal this unwanted union with a
kiss to show the two families joined together with no ill feelings?
He’d not do it. All he’d had to do was tell the priest he protested.
The ceremony would have gone no further. He couldn’t do it. His clan
needed him. Before he left home he’d decided not to stay with her
after the wedding, wanting nothing to do with a woman his father
selected. He planned to leave as soon as he took her to his home. He
wouldn’t change his mind now.
He stood resolute—and
unable to breathe—for he stared at one of the loveliest women he’d
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