“This makes three weeks spent on the road worthwhile.”
Robbie McGregor, heir to his father’s title and the next Laird of Skye, regarded the scene that surrounded him. His appreciative grin betrayed both relish and gleeful anticipation, which he made no attempt to disguise. His gleaming gaze took in the crowds of richly dressed courtiers, the forest of gaily coloured pennants fluttering from the posts marking the perimeter of the jousting arena, the myriad stalls offering everything from steaming game pies to trinkets of silver and gold, from tankards of strong ale to posies of spring blooms. Everywhere was hustle, people rushing about, shouting to each other, greeting friends, bickering and bargaining, all vying for attention, all jostling to be seen.
James McGregor, Earl of Ingram and master of Etal Castle in the north of England as well as Lord of Mortain in the lowlands of Scotland, gripped the reins of his horse in one hand and gentled the destrier with the other. The animal snorted his disgust and pawed the ground in frustration at being forced to stand still when surrounded by the heady scents of lusty mares, stallions, and geldings.
“Easy, Thor. We shall have our sport soon enough.” Jamie shared his younger brother’s sense of anticipation. Their journey from the Scottish borders had indeed been arduous, the road where it existed little more than a muddy quagmire. They had postponed the trip as long as decently possible, but ultimately had no choice but to travel to the capital to pay their respects to the new Tudor monarch.
Young Henry Tudor had ascended to the throne just two years previously on the death of his father, the seventh Henry. In truth, the McGregors should have attended to bend their knees before their new sovereign rather sooner than this but they did not much relish the prospect. London was five hundred miles or several weeks of hard riding away and events at court felt to be of little relevance to their life in the borders. Eventually they had run out of excuses though, and the inevitable day had dawned. They had ridden south to present themselves and swear loyalty, intending to make the return journey as soon as they decently could.
But their plans had suddenly changed.
There was nothing either man enjoyed more than a bout of rowdy mock combat. Wrestling, sword play, racing their massive destriers across the lowland moors—both were keenly competitive and their rivalry seemingly endless. They had had the extreme good fortune to arrive at court on the second day of the king’s grand tournament. Half the nobility of England had assembled in the meadows surrounding the monarch’s palace at Greenwich to enjoy the spectacle.
Robbie grinned at his brother. “I have entered our names in the archery contest, the quarterstaff, and of course the joust. We missed the wrestling and the hurling, but I believe there is to be a competition using swords and battle-axes. I could not find the steward organising those, but we shall.”
“Aye, we shall,” Jamie agreed. “Which event is first?”
“Archery,” Robbie replied. “Over here.”
Both men mounted their stallions and started to make their way through the milling throngs in the direction of the section of meadow allocated to the display of bowmanship. Already several archers had collected in readiness, their longbows slung across their backs. The more ambitious among them strode the length of the arena to inspect the targets set up a couple of hundred paces away. Arms were raised to test the strength of the breeze, the light carefully assessed, the keenest arrows selected. This might be mere sport, but every man present knew what was at stake.
The prize was a valuable purse from the king himself, not to mention the chance to bolster one’s reputation, the opportunity to impress those in authority or posture before inferiors. All sought the glory of victory, hoping to wallow in it for days or weeks to come.
Jamie and Robbie were both better than average with a longbow. Their father had seen to that. Still, neither claimed to be exceptional archers. They did not expect to win but were determined not to be disgraced.
“Hey, you. Yes, you, lad.” Jamie summoned a youth who was lurking close to the edge of the arena. When the lad approached, Jamie slid easily down from the saddle and flung the reins to the young man. “Here’s a penny for holding our horses while we take part in the archery. There will be two more for you at the end.”
The lad caught the coin that Jamie flicked in his direction, bit on it, then pocketed the money. He accepted Robbie’s reins with a nod and clung on tight as the two stallions sought to follow their masters.
“Do you suppose he can hold them?” Robbie wondered as they marched away. “I do not relish the prospect of having to retrieve my horse from some pasture full of juicy mares.”
Jamie shrugged. “I expect he will. I paid him well enough and where else could he earn the price of a week’s food for just an hour’s work?”
Satisfied, Robbie fell silent and both men’s attention was turned entirely upon the pressing matter at hand, that of propelling a slender arrow through the air to embed itself as close to the bullseye as they could.
“Fifth,” Jamie snorted an hour later. “Only fifth.”
“You did better than I, brother.” Robbie had managed seventh place, though he remained adamant that he had been robbed. The swaggering popinjay who had bested him to sixth place had coughed just as Robbie loosed his arrow. The young McGregor heir insisted it had been done on purpose.
“We shall do better in the sword-fighting,” Jamie offered, slinging an arm across his brother’s shoulders. “But first, we retrieve our mounts and I shall treat you to a mug of ale.”
Jamie was right. They did indeed fare better in the sword-fighting arena where they managed a creditable third and fourth place. Having come third, Robbie received a purse from none other than the golden young monarch himself. Henry Tudor, the eighth of that name, smiled beatifically at the men as he handed them their prizes. Naturally, the king himself had gained first prize, an achievement that both McGregors found less than credible. Henry VIII was a decent enough swordsman but not an exceptional one. He had ‘beaten’ far better men than himself, including both of them.
“Sycophants and lapdogs, all of them,” Robbie observed. “They let him win because he is the king.”
“Aye, well, that is the way of it in the Tudor court, is it not?” Jamie wiped the blade of his sword before sliding it back into its scabbard. “The king prides himself on being the finest athlete, the greatest swordsman, the most accomplished musician, the most light-footed of dancers. It is a dangerous pastime indeed to best him at anything.”
“Idiots, the lot of them. Cowards all.”
“Keep your voice down, brother,” Jamie admonished. “We do not wish to spend the rest of our sojourn here in the Tower of London.”
Robbie snorted his disgust. “I see His Majesty is entered in the quarterstaff also. In that case, there is no point exerting ourselves for the outcome is already known.”
Jamie laughed softly. “All here are aware that the true winner will be the man who comes second. Come, let us enjoy the day for what it is and do not let Henry’s arrogance ruin it for us.”
Still muttering under his breath, Robbie allowed himself to be steered in the direction of the quarterstaff contest. The king had already stripped to his waist by the time they arrived on the field and was receiving the congratulations of his closest circle. If any considered such accolades premature, no one troubled to mention it.
Jamie managed second place having remembered only just in time to allow His Majesty’s wild swing to catch him across the shoulders in the final bout. He sank to his knees, panting and holding his palm up in feigned surrender. The king was all smiles, offering the victorious royal hand to haul his vanquished opponent to his feet. Jamie accepted the gesture and suffered Henry’s hearty back-patting with decent enough grace. The purse he received as his prize was generous, so the day had not been a complete disappointment.
Neither of the brothers was especially enthusiastic about seeking out the steward to secure their places in the battle-axe. They retired to the closest ale stall to wait out the couple of hours until the grand finale of the day, the joust.
Naturally, Henry had entered. No one expected any other outcome but that he would emerge the victor. The king had not failed to win a jousting contest since his sixteenth birthday and there was no cause to suppose this occasion would be any different.
In truth, Jamie thought, as he observed the proceedings from his position in the queue, Henry was a fine horseman and held a good, steady lance. He unseated his first two opponents fair and square. His victory against the third man, a huge knight on a massive grey stallion, was less clear cut. The man dropped the point of his lance at the final moment, allowing the king to catch him a glancing blow in the chest. The knight toppled from his mount to a chorus of cheers and groans from the spectators.
“Your turn,” Jamie muttered to his brother. “Good luck.” By which he meant, try not to break a limb when you hit the ground.
Robbie survived his encounter with their golden monarch with all four limbs intact though Jamie suspected that the same might not be said of his ribs. Still, such was the life of a subject of King Henry. Robbie picked himself up and trudged the length of the field to retrieve his mount as Jamie took up his position ready to sacrifice himself to the king’s glory.
He lowered his visor, raised his lance, anchored the shaft firmly in his armpit and angled the length of it slightly upward in readiness for the charge. At the signal from the steward to his right, Jamie dug in his heels and muttered, “Go, Thor.” That was enough to send the eager stallion into a flat out gallop. Hooves thundered, the ground rolled away beneath, the distance eaten up in mere seconds. Jamie angled his neck in order to give him a narrow line of sight through the slit visor of his helmet. The king’s mount charged toward him, the monarch seated upon his back, lance directed inexorably at Jamie’s breastplate.
Fuck, this will hurt…
He had watched this done a couple of times now and believed he had the hang of it. It was vital to judge the moment of impact and drop the point of his lance an instant before. Too early and it would appear contrived. This would not suit Henry. The king insisted upon at least the appearance of a fine victory. Jamie wondered, irrelevantly, whether Henry actually believed in his own infallible prowess. Had he not allowed himself that momentary distraction, and had the sun not chosen that precise moment to emerge from behind a cloud and cast one searing beam down upon those below, and had that beam of sunlight not momentarily dazzled Jamie, then he might have accomplished his plan. He might have lowered his lance, taken the glancing blow, and allowed himself to be unseated.
But he missed the exact moment. His lance remained steady for a second too long, his aim true. He caught the royal breastplate full on and sent His Glorious Majesty sailing through the air to land in an undignified and distinctly unregal heap upon the grass.
There was a collective gasp from the spectators, then silence.
Jamie hauled on the reins, brought Thor to a stop, then turned to survey the scene behind him. Stewards and courtiers already surrounded the fallen monarch. Willing hands hauled the king back to his feet where he stood, tall and glistening in his highly polished and—until now—barely scuffed armour. A babble of solicitous inquiries reached Jamie’s ears.
“Are you injured, sire?”
“Such bad luck, sire. Your aim was true, you would have felled him for sure.”
“A lucky blow, sire, no more.”
Jamie urged Thor into a steady canter and returned to where his king swayed unsteadily on his feet. Perhaps His Majesty would take his defeat in good part. After all, no knight, however skilled, could expect to win every competition.
He leapt from his mount to drop to one knee before the king. “I thank you for your generosity, sire. Truly, you permitted me to win, I see that, as do all your courtiers. Your grace is beyond measure. I—”
“Get out of my sight, Scottish cur.” The king’s usual jovial tone had lowered to a venomous hiss.
Jamie ventured a glance up into the king’s handsome features and encountered only burning rage. Still he continued his attempt to repair the damage done to the fragile royal ego. “Sire, my apologies. I was momentarily blinded by the sunlight, and—”
“I commanded you to be gone. Do not let me set eyes upon you again.”
“But, Your Majesty, I did not—”
“You took me by surprise. I was not ready. All could see that. You are a cheat and without honour. There is no place here for such as you. This is a place for men of courtly manners and chivalry, not false Scottish adventurers. This may be the manner in which you conduct yourselves north of the border, but it will not be tolerated here. Be gone. Now.”
Jamie started to bristle. He could fawn and flatter as well as the next man—well, nearly—but he would not accept an accusation of cheating. “Your Majesty, you are mistaken. I…”
“Our apologies, sire. My brother is tired, the sun, you see.” Robbie grabbed his elbow and tugged hard.
“We have travelled far, Your Majesty,” Robbie continued backing away from the enraged monarch and towing his brother along with him. “And the ale here is strong. Perhaps we could attend you in your receiving chamber at your early convenience to swear our loyalty…”
The king merely scowled. His handsome features twisted in petulant rage. He waved a dismissive arm and turned to the courtiers closest. “Who were those two? See to it that they do not gain admittance to the palace, not in any circumstances.”
“Scots, Your Majesty,” the red-robed cardinal who was Henry’s closest adviser could be heard to explain. “The sons of Blair McGregor. They will be banished from the field and you need not lay eyes upon them again.”
Neither of the McGregors objected to that outcome. Within the hour they were leaving Greenwich and heading north to the relative sanity of the borders.
Ashingburn Manor, Dorset, England
“Aaaagh!” Eleanor let out a high-pitched shriek and declared herself quite convinced her body was about to split in two.
“There, there, my lady. ‘Twill soon be over.” The midwife, Nellie Bloom, whose duties involved helping out in the kitchens and laundry when there were no babes to be birthed, offered such comfort as she might. She was a kindly enough woman but her fussing and solicitous mopping of Eleanor’s brow was doing little to expedite matters.
Eleanor screamed again as another cramping pain wrapped her belly in an iron vise of sheer agony. As the contraction receded she managed to pant, waiting for the next, which was not long in coming.
“The pains are frequent now. It cannot be much longer,” Nellie observed.
“It has been the best part of a day already,” came the anxious response from the woman who waited at the foot of the bed. Lady Elisabeth Falconer, Countess of Ashingburn, wrung her hands and peered helplessly at her labouring daughter. “Do you not have some potion that would speed matters up?”
Nellie shook her head. “The Lord decides how long this will take. He will guide us in our travails…”
The countess let out an inelegant snort. A devout woman, her faith in the judgment and benevolent intent of the Almighty had been sorely tried these recent months. First, her precious daughter had been summoned to Greenwich to attend the young Queen Katherine, despite having no experience of life at court and no relatives there to support or guide her. Or, as it turned out, to protect her. Within three months of taking up her duties in the queen’s service, poor Eleanor had attracted the attention of a certain Richard Culpepper. Despite being already married, Culpepper had made no secret of his desire for the newest lady in waiting. At twenty-one, Eleanor was past the very first flush of youth but even so, she was completely lacking in experience in the ways and wiles of men and had no notion whatsoever of the lengths they might go to get what they wanted.
Culpepper wanted Eleanor, and he had taken her. In the gardens at Vauxhall, after a night-time banquet and soiree. He had contrived to separate Eleanor from the rest of the ladies and as soon as he had her alone and in a secluded alcove he had forced her to the ground. Too frightened to scream for help, Eleanor had submitted to her attacker’s demands. After, he had straightened her skirts and accompanied her back to the ladies’ apartments in the palace where he took his leave as though nothing amiss had occurred.
Lady Falconer had heard all of this from Eleanor when the girl arrived home in disgrace. Weeping, betrayed, and pregnant, as soon as her condition became known the queen had demanded an explanation. Eleanor had supplied one, only to be called a liar and a whore. Richard Culpepper, one of His Majesty’s closest friends and part of the royal inner circle, flatly denied any coercion and instead claimed that Eleanor had flung herself at him. None doubted the word of a close associate of the king himself and Eleanor was promptly banished.
Her reputation in tatters, her future ruined, the earl and countess nevertheless welcomed their daughter back and saw no cause to disbelieve her account of the events at Vauxhall. And now, six months after her unexpected return, Eleanor lay writhing in her bed, labouring to bring forth the bastard planted in her by the king’s crony.
Eleanor let out another unearthly shriek and the countess rushed to her side. She took her hand and squeezed, urging her daughter to push at the same time as Nellie delved beneath the blankets for sight of the emerging infant.
“The head! I see the head,” Nellie announced. “It will be soon now…”
Eleanor screeched again, and Nellie let out a triumphant shout as though she and not the sweating, exhausted girl in the bed had done the hard work.
“It is here. I have it. A girl. A beautiful, healthy girl.”
Nellie dumped the slippery, bloodstained scrap of humanity in the startled countess’s arms and proceeded to do whatever remained needful beneath the blankets. Stunned, Lady Elisabeth peered down into the crumpled features. She had dreaded this moment, half-expected to detest her grandchild on sight given the vile nature of her conception and the dire consequences for her beloved daughter. Instead, she was at once consumed by a wondrous and all-encompassing love. The baby girl was perfect, quite, quite exquisite.
“Mama, can I hold her? Is she all right?” Eleanor reached for her baby and Lady Elisabeth relinquished the now squirming infant.
Eleanor held the child to her breast and guided the tiny rosebud of a mouth toward her nipple. The baby needed little in the way of urging and within moments of entering the world was taking her first meal.
“She is beautiful,” Lady Elisabeth breathed, barely able to comprehend this day’s events. “An adorable little girl. What shall we name her?”
“Cecily. She shall be Cecily,” Eleanor murmured, already half asleep.
“Yes,” Lady Elisabeth agreed. “That would suit her very nicely.”
A granddaughter, perfect in every way. And her daughter, safely delivered through her ordeal. Perhaps God was merciful after all.
The countess sank into a chair beside the bed and allowed her tears to fall freely.
Etal Castle, Northumberland, England
James McGregor, Earl of Ingram and master of Castle Etal slumped back in his high-backed chair and planted his booted feet upon the edge of the table in his great hall. Before him were a mug of foaming ale and a sheet of parchment still curling from having been tightly rolled up within the cloak of the messenger sent from the king himself to deliver his instructions into the hands of the border earl.
Jamie took a generous swig of his ale, then reread the missive.
“May I?” His brother, Robbie, reached for the parchment and did not wait for permission before scanning the rows of neat script. He finished and set the sheet down. “He cannot do this. Does he not know you are betrothed already? To Janet, niece to The Douglas himself.”
Jamie gave a mirthless chuckle. “I doubt Henry Tudor cares for the sensibilities of Clan Douglas, or Clan McGregor for that matter. They are Scots, none of his concern.”
“As are we. Henry has no right—”
“He has every right. My father may be The McGregor and I may be brother to the next laird, but I am also earl of an English keep and as such subject to His Majesty’s authority. He may command me as he sees fit.”
“Henry Tudor is hundreds of miles away. He cannot enforce this… this farce.”
“If I do not wish to be stripped of my title and my lands in England, he can and he will.”
“We could appeal to King James of Scotland.”
Jamie sighed. “To what end? Henry will have his way, or he will have Etal. It is that simple.”
“But, what of Janet?”
Jamie shrugged. “I doubt that she will be heartbroken exactly. The match between us was agreed between her uncle and our father as a way of further sealing their friendship and alliance. They all but grew up together and are as close as brothers already. My marriage would make no difference to that and Janet will be free to wed young Angus Ferguson, as she always wanted.”
“The Douglas will not like that. Ferguson is a second son and will inherit little enough from his mother.”
“That is not my concern, brother.”
“No, perhaps not. But… a Sassenach bride?” It occurred to Jamie that his brother could not appear more outraged had Henry suggested he should wed his horse. The prospect of marriage to a Sassenach, the not especially flattering term used by Scots to describe the English, was only marginally less horrifying.
Jamie chuckled. “Are we not all Sassenachs, Robbie? This is an English keep, after all. Our uncle, the previous earl, was born in York, if I recall.”
“Aye, and look how he turned out.” Robbie grimaced. “You must have a strong stomach, my brother, to even contemplate this.”
“The state of my stomach is not my first consideration. What does concern me is the fact that our most benevolent and generous king, in his wisdom, has not only presented me with a Sassenach bride. More to the point, he has seen fit to order a marriage between me and the disgraced Ashingburn wench.”
At this, Robbie’s ears pricked up. “Disgraced? What do you mean? Do you know her?”
Jamie shook his head. “I have never met the girl, but I know of her. She is daughter to Percy, the Earl of Ashingburn in Dorset. She was lady in waiting to Queen Katherine and apparently took a fancy to one of the king’s advisers. A handsome enough fellow, I gather, called Culpepper. Unfortunately, he had a wife already, but that did not deter the Ashingburn girl. The rumour is that she pursued him for weeks until he finally succumbed to her wiles. They had a short but torrid affair, which resulted in the girl becoming pregnant. She was banished in disgrace, and later gave birth to a child. The baby sickened and died shortly after.”
“And now Henry means to foist this girl on you?”
“It seems so. In fact…” Jamie consulted the parchment once more, “I am given to understand that she is already on her way. I am commanded to meet my betrothed’s party at York.”
“Tell the king to go to hell, and to take his damaged goods with him,” Robbie muttered.
“I confess, I am tempted.”
“We should go to Duncleit. Our father will know what is best to do.”
There would have been nothing Jamie would have liked better than make an extended visit to his father’s lands on Skye in the Scottish highlands but he was essentially a realist. “I am not so sure there is a solution, other than the obvious two choices. Either I do as His Majesty commands, or I defy him and forfeit Etal.”
“But this girl might be…” Robbie flapped an arm, searching for suitable descriptions. “She might be fat. Or ugly. Or a shrew. Or all three. At the very least we know she is a trollop and has thus far failed to bear a healthy child. None of these are desirable qualities in a future countess.”
“You may well be right, my brother, and I think we both know that is exactly the point. This is Henry’s revenge for that bloody tournament.”
“God’s balls, yes. Of course. Why else would he saddle you with such a female, especially if he knows it will force you to break your promise to Janet.”
“I made no promises to Janet, thank heaven. But I am convinced this is just vindictiveness on Henry’s part dressed up as statesmanship. There can be no strategic sense in allying Etal with an estate in Dorset. He means to humiliate me as I humiliated him that day, or so he sees it.”
“Does he have nothing better to think about than petty revenge? Can he not concern himself with finding some way to pay for that grand new warship of his? Or is he not troubled by the latest peace treaty between Louis of France and the Holy Roman Emperor?”
Jamie gave another dry chuckle. “I should, perhaps, be flattered to be so much in His Majesty’s thoughts at this time.” He got to his feet. “I will instruct Archie to prepare to leave for York tomorrow.”
“You mean to go along with Henry’s ridiculous scheme, then?”
Jamie shrugged. “I see no alternative that I especially fancy. So, will you come with me, brother?”
“I would not miss this for the world.”
The party from Etal clattered into York almost a week later. Jamie and Robbie rode at the head of the column of men they had brought as escort. Archie Montgomery had remained at Etal to see to the safety of the keep in his lord’s absence.
Archie, Jamie’s elder by half a year, was the son of Aiden and Betsy Montgomery, the steward and housekeeper who between them had taken care of both Etal and the neighbouring Scottish keep at Mortain until Jamie was of age and able to manage his households for himself. These days, Aiden and Betsy chose to live at Mortain mostly, in semi-retirement. Jamie resided at Etal, so both houses were amply supervised.
Archie was captain of Jamie’s guards. An experienced warrior he had gained the favour of the previous Henry and had been knighted at the tender age of just twenty-one. He possessed a rare talent for the battlefield and was as brilliant a strategist as his father had been. Etal would be safe in his hands.
Archie had laughed out loud when told of his friend’s dilemma and advised bedding the new countess with the candles unlit.
Jamie’s response had been a scowl and a muttered curse.
He halted his party in the rutted courtyard of an inn. It was a place he usually stopped at on his rare excursions south so the innkeeper was quick to rush out and offer him the finest rooms in the house. James slid from Thor’s back and tossed the reins to a waiting stable lad.
“Thank you. We shall take all the rooms you have. Another party is also expected, a lady and her escort. We shall require accommodation for them, also.”
“Of course, my lord. I shall have my wife prepare the rooms at once. In the meantime, may I offer refreshment? We have the finest ales, and a good, hearty pigeon stew just ready…”
Jamie followed his enthusiastic host through the low door that led into the main public room of the hostelry. York was a busy market town, so several men were already availing themselves of the chance of a jug of ale and a bite to eat. Several heads turned as the well-dressed party entered, but all eyes were quickly averted at a glare from the northern warlord. Jamie often had that effect.
“Have you heard news of the arrival of a party from the south?” he inquired of the innkeeper. “Perhaps they are at another inn.”
The man shook his head, wiping his hands upon a greasy apron. “Word of newcomers would soon get round. No, my lord. Yours is the only party of any consequence to arrive in York these last few days.”
Jamie was pleased. This would afford him the time to prepare to meet his new bride. “Robbie, you will send an escort of men to meet Lady Eleanor and see her safe here.”
Robbie inclined his head and strode back out into the courtyard to issue instructions. By the time he returned two tankards of ale had been poured and a wench stood by with a pitcher at the ready to refill their cups as needed. Jamie shoved a stool out and Robbie sat.
“D’ye plan tae wed the lass here?” he asked after he had taken a long gulp. “The Minster is a fine place for a wedding.”
Jamie shook his head. “Lady Eleanor is no virgin, and by all accounts somewhat light of skirt. I have no intention of saddling myself with another man’s bastard, at least, not by accident. I shall wait a few weeks, a month at least, just to be sure that she is not expecting already.”
His brother nodded. A wise precaution, he agreed.
“Do we have any notion of when she might be expected to arrive?” Robbie wondered.
“Soon,” Jamie replied. “She left Dorset before that missive from the king was dispatched, and it has taken us the best part of a week to get here. Assuming she has not met with some mishap on her journey north, I think it is safe to assume our meeting to be imminent.”
The two men raised their mugs again in shared commiseration.
Jamie was right. The four men sent by Robbie to act as escort returned soon after first light the following morning, followed by several more men on horseback who surrounded three females, also mounted. The group descended upon the inn with a loud clattering and much yelling of instructions to the sleepy stable hands.
Jamie watched their arrival from the window of the chamber he shared with his brother. Robbie was still asleep, but he had woken with the lark, as he usually did, despite the copious quantities of ale they had seen off the previous evening.
He studied the females in the courtyard below with close attention. All were well dressed, though one of them perched upon a considerably finer mount than her attendants. He assumed this to be his future wife, his unwanted little Sassenach.
The ladies were assisted to the ground and each took a few moments to straighten their attire. Each wore a long woollen cloak, hoods raised as protection from the morning chill, and gloves made, he thought, of decent quality leather. Their footwear, too, was well fashioned. Clearly, the Ashingburn coffers were not depleted, and James wondered yet again why they had consented to this match. If not for financial gain, then they, too, must be in need of the king’s favour. And, he supposed, the lady had little choice, given her recent history. There would be few vying for her hand, however wealthy her family might be.
He aimed a kick at his brother’s foot, which dangled from the bed. “Wake up. We have work to do.”
Robbie muttered something unintelligible.
Jamie dragged the blanket from him. “Get your bones out of there and do what you might to make yourself look presentable. We are about to greet my bride.” He strode from the room, leaving his brother to gather his wits and follow when he would.
“Madam.” Jamie plastered his most courtly smile across his features and approached the group of ladies who were still milling about in the courtyard. He made a beeline for the one he had identified as Lady Eleanor and bowed before the diminutive figure. She was shorter than her companions by a good hand’s width, and even beneath the voluminous folds of her cloak it was obvious that she did not share their willowy slenderness.
Jamie knew his brother would describe the lady as plump, though for himself he preferred to think of her as not lacking in feminine curves. A good thing, surely, even in a Sassenach?
“My lord?” She peered up at him from beneath her hood.
“James McGregor, Earl of Ingram and Lord of Mortain, at your service, my lady.” Jamie offered her a bow.
“Sir James?” Her brown eyebrows lifted in surprise. “It is good of you to come to meet me. I had not expected…” She dropped into a quick curtsey. “Had I known you were waiting for me in York, I would have sought to remove the stains of travel before meeting you. I apologise for my appearance.”
Jamie regarded her critically. She did not look too bad to him, considering she had been travelling for a fortnight. “I have reserved rooms for you. There will be ample opportunity for you and your ladies to rest and refresh yourselves before we continue our journey north. Castle Etal is a week’s ride from here.”
She nodded. “I know. You are most kind, my lord. But a few hours of respite from the dust of the road will be most welcome.”
“More than a few hours, my lady. I propose that we remain here tonight and resume the journey tomorrow.”
She smiled. Her hood slipped back onto her shoulders to reveal light brown curls, arranged in a neat coil at the back of her head. Her eyes were hazel, her mouth full and, he imagined, accustomed to smiling since the expression came so readily. He could not find it within himself to term her pretty, exactly. Her features were too plain for that. Unremarkable, he decided. But she was homely, and not unattractive in her way. She would do well enough.
He had already resolved to do his best to disregard the horrendous tales he had heard and judge her for himself. If her disposition was as inoffensive as her appearance, he fancied they would get on passably.
The innkeeper appeared at his side, greasy apron askew. It was clear the man was not long out of his bed. “My lord. My lady. You honour my humble establishment. Please, come inside. Your rooms are ready…”
“Lady Eleanor will be requiring a bath,” Jamie announced. “With plenty of hot water, and the best soap you have. And a laundress to freshen her clothing. And we will all thank you for a hearty breakfast.”
“Of course, right away.” The innkeeper bobbed eager bows in every direction. “My wife shall see to the lady’s comfort. There is bread, cheese, honey, and some stew left over from yesterday. I shall have it brought to your rooms.”
“Excellent.” Jamie gestured to Lady Eleanor to precede him into the squat little building, just as Robbie appeared in the doorway. He still looked somewhat the worse for wear despite having clearly doused himself in cold water from the pitcher supplied in their chamber. His hair was dripping wet and he squinted awkwardly in the bright light of morning.
“May I present my brother, Robert McGregor, heir to the Laird of Skye.” Jamie made the introductions and his brother managed a quick bow. If Lady Eleanor found his appearance somewhat casual, she made no mention of it.
“It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lord.” She seemed sincere enough, offering her hand to Robbie.
Pretty manners. Jamie found himself warming to this odd little English wench who King Henry had decreed he must share his life with. He allowed himself a relieved smile as he followed her into the inn and up the stairs to their allotted rooms.
Jamie and Robbie opted to break their fast in the common room of the inn rather than their chamber. Jamie left word that Lady Eleanor was to join them when she felt ready, and that there was no rush.
“Not a beauty,” Robbie observed an hour or so later as he chewed on a mouthful of honeyed bread. “Maybe she will be a decent chatelaine though. She looks the type.”
“What type might that be,” Jamie growled. He did not relish the prospect of breakfasting on a stream of criticism regarding his bride and found himself already rising to her defence.
Robbie shrugged. “I’d wager she is no stranger to a decent lye soap.”
“She is to be a countess, not a washerwoman,” Jamie snarled.
Robbie offered another noncommittal shrug and helped himself to a lump of cheese.
Jamie fixed a glare on his brother who continued to chew innocently. “Well?” he demanded. “I am sure you have more to say.”
Robbie wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “She is more unassuming than I imagined, given her reputation.”
Jamie’s thoughts exactly.
“And when all is said and done,” Robbie continued, “you can always take Archie’s advice about the candles.”
“What advice is that, my lord?” The two men spun around at the soft voice from the doorway. Lady Eleanor entered, looking considerably fresher in a soft velvet gown of fine mustard-coloured velvet. Her hair was covered by a neat French hood. She regarded them with a puzzled half-smile. “Is there a problem with the candles?”
Robbie succumbed to a violent fit of coughing brought about by the inhalation of ale. Jamie slapped him on the back in a dutiful attempt to restore his breathing, but soon abandoned him to his fate. He stood to greet his bride.
“There is no problem at all, my lady.” He sent an irritated glare in the direction of his stricken sibling. “My brother is an idiot, sadly. Please do not judge him too harshly, he cannot help it.”
“Is he quite well?” Lady Eleanor appeared genuinely concerned.
The coughing subsided. Jamie exhaled sharply. “It would appear so. Have you eaten yet, my lady?”
She shook her head. “I received your message and did not wish to keep you waiting.”
“Then you must join us. Robbie, you will find a seat for Lady Eleanor, if you please.”
Robbie rose and offered his own chair to the lady, then he dragged a bench across from another table and sat down again. Lady Eleanor accepted the offered seat and arranged her velvet skirts carefully. She appeared perfectly composed, Jamie thought. Or she would, were it not for the unmistakable shaking of her fingers. And perhaps her complexion was a little on the pale side.
He cut her a slice of bread and some cheese and gestured to the innkeeper to bring her a glass. He and Robbie had managed perfectly well with the more usual wooden mugs, but he thought the lady might be accustomed to finer things.
“There is ale, or wine if you prefer it,” he offered.
“A little wine would be most welcome, my lord.” She accepted the food he pushed in her direction and began to nibble delicately on the bread.
Jamie signalled to the landlord who rushed across with a jug of red wine. Eleanor thanked him most politely and accepted half a glass. She took a sip, then raised her gaze to meet that of Jamie.
“Have you…?” She paused, swallowed, then tried again. “Do you have plans for our wedding, my lord? I had wondered, since you have come all this way to York, if you mean the ceremony to take place here.”
Jamie shook his head. “The wedding will take place in the chapel at Etal.”
“I see. I am sure that will be perfectly suitable. Will the ceremony take place when we arrive there, then?”
Jamie cleared his throat. “Not immediately. I see no cause for undue haste.”
“Undue haste? I do not understand. If I am to live under your roof, then surely the sooner we are wed, the better. The contracts are signed. Is there some difficulty with the dowry?”
She appeared most anxious to conclude the formalities. Despite his growing esteem for the lady, Jamie’s suspicions were aroused. “There is no problem. And as for your reputation, I can assure you, there will be no shortage of suitable chaperones. I had thought we might wait for a few weeks at least. It will give us an opportunity to get to know one another.”
Even as he uttered them, his words sounded hollow and contrived. This was an arranged marriage, a contract forged at the direct behest of His Majesty the king. Nothing would change, regardless of how well acquainted they were or were not. There could be no reasonable cause for a delay.
Except, there was. He knew it, and if the deep flush that suddenly engulfed his bride’s features was any indication, so did she.
Lady Eleanor set her bread down on the platter and reached again for her glass. She thought better of it and lifted her gaze to meet his again.
“I see. I understand your dilemma perfectly, my lord. You will wish to be cautious, naturally.” She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. “I find I am more fatigued from the road than I had realised. Would you object greatly if I was to return to my chamber?”
Her lower lip quivered. The lady was close to tears and Jamie cursed himself for a tactless fool. He was a practical man. The delay was sensible. But he had not intended to wound her so.
He got to his feet. “Of course. You should rest and I will see you at the evening meal.”
She muttered her thanks, permitted him to drop a kiss on the back of her knuckles, then hurried from the room.
Robbie watched her retreating back then turned to his brother. “That went well. Important to get off to a good start, I always say.”
“Fuck off.” Jamie slumped back in his chair and grabbed his mug. “Landlord! More ale over here.”
The evening meal was a taciturn affair.
Lady Eleanor joined Jamie and Robbie in the common room, accompanied by her two ladies. The older one was handsome enough, in her way, and the younger a little thing. They kept the conversation flowing with the willing participation of his brother. Lady Eleanor herself barely spoke a word, and it was clear from the puffiness around her eyes that she had been crying.
Christ’s bones, he could do without a weepy female.
He should apologise. He knew that, but to do so he would have to relax his position and bring their wedding forward. Under the circumstances he was not willing to do that, so must endure her miserable silence.
To be fair, she made an effort. She answered when spoken to and responded in monosyllables to his polite questions regarding the health of her family. He avoided any reference to the sad loss of her baby and was relieved when it was finally time to retire. He dropped a perfunctory kiss on her cheek and bade her good night.