Authors: Margo Maguire
Adam could not recall seeing anything quite as grand as Cristiane MacDhiubh
enjoying her first sunrise on Bitterlee. Her eyes were wide, framed by gold-tipped lashes. Her lips were full and moist, and entirely too alluring.
His heart began to pound. The rushing surf was naught compared to the roaring in his own ears.
In the growing light he saw that she was covered from neck to toe by a thin linen kirtle, yet her enticing form would never be hidden from him again, no matter how well covered it might be. Burned into his memory was the way she’d looked in the firelight the morning he’d seen her undressed.
’Twould take only the slightest movement of his hand to pull her close, a trifling tip of his head to bring his lips into contact with hers.
And every fiber of his being demanded that he do so…!
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The Bride of Windermere
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Available from Harlequin Historicals and
The Bride of Windermere
His Lady Fair
Bride of the Isle
This book is dedicated to Amy Ho, enthusiastic backpacker, avid reader, daring volunteer and student extraordinaire. May all your dreams and wishes come true.
Isle of Bitterlee, in the North Sea
Penyngton,” said Adam Sutton as he restlessly paced the length of the tower room. “I’ll not marry again. And certainly not a Scot.”
“But, my lord,” Sir Charles Penyngton protested. He had license to speak to his lord in this manner, only because of his long term as seneschal here at Bitterlee. “You are still a young man. Merely one and thirty. And you have no heir. As Earl of Bitterlee, ’tis your duty to provide…”
Distractedly, Adam stopped at one of the long arrow loops in the wall of his solar and gazed out at the sea beyond. Bitterlee was a bleak, isolated place. According to legend, it had been named the “Isle of Bitter Life” by one of his ancient ancestors after his wife had ended her life here. ’Twas said that the name had changed over the years—been corrupted—to Bitterlee.
Scotswoman is perfect,” Charles said. “Cristiane of St. Oln. She is accustomed to a harsh climate such as ours, and is said to be a hearty lass.”
Rosamund,” Adam said starkly. He knew what Charles and the others assumed. That he still mourned the death of his wife, Rosamund. And that was true, to a point.
What they did not understand was that he had never cared for Rosamund the way he should have, nor did he mourn her loss. Oh, true enough, he mourned her death, as he would have mourned anyone in his household.
But Rosamund had never been part of his heart or his being. Adam did not care to think how he would feel if she had been more to him than she was.
Even now he did not understand how Rosamund’s father could have given her to him in marriage. Surely the man had known Bitterlee’s characteristics, its isolation, its harsh winters…its fierce beauty. Rosamund had been a delicate young lady who should have married a southern lord. She’d have fared so much better wed to a man with connections in London, a man with aspirations at court.
Instead, she’d come to this godforsaken isle. And languished here for nearly five years. She had despised it.
“My lord,” Charles began again, but his words were cut off by a spate of coughing. When Adam would have seen to him, the seneschal waved him off, insisting he needed no help. “There are other considerations,” he said, once he’d caught his breath. “Your daughter, my lord…she is in need of…”
Adam frowned and speared Charles with his steely gray gaze.
“Er…that is, Margaret needs…I mean to say Lady Margaret does not seem to—to
Adam had to admit that much was true. Though everyone at Bitterlee had kept secret Rosamund’s cause of death, Margaret was clearly traumatized by the loss of her mother. The child was a wraith. She looked nothing at all like a Sutton, and was as frail and wispy as her mother had been. Since Rosamund’s death, Margaret had closed herself off. She never spoke, and she showed little interest in anything that would normally hold a child’s attention.
And if Adam
did not do something about Margaret’s impassivity, she would not survive the year.
But marry a Scotswoman?
“Tell me more of this…Cristiane of St. Oln,” he said, his words and attitude without hope. He’d recently suffered bitter losses at the hands of the Scots, and could not imagine bringing one of their kind to the isle. “But do not assume that I will go along with your plan.”
The Village of St. Oln, Scotland
Domhnall, the half-English daughter of Domhnall Mac Dhiubh, sat on a rocky promontory overlooking the crashing black waves of the North Sea. The wind had kicked up, and the clouds overhead were thick with moisture. Cristiane knew there would soon be a downpour.
’Twas no matter. There was a cave nearby if she needed to find shelter. She would not return to the village by choice. Lord knew she was barely tolerated in St. Oln since the death of her parents.
Cristiane stretched one arm out and opened her hand, letting it rest quietly beside her. Soon enough, a pair of soft gray kittiwakes approached, one more shyly than the other. The bold one stood looking at Cristiane, then hopped closer, eyeing the outstretched hand, tilting his head this way and that, viewing from all angles the bit of bread she held.
Cristiane smiled wistfully. ’Twas a game she’d played for years, with the guillemots, the shags and the puffins that inhabited this place. The birds were unafraid of her. Wary, of course. She expected nothing less of them.
But soon she
would see them no more. For her mother had arranged for her to be escorted to York, to the estate of her uncle. Elizabeth of York had known that Cristiane had no future here in St. Oln. When the lass’s father, the Mac Dhiubh, had been killed in a skirmish with a neighboring clan, Elizabeth had begun to seek a new home for Cristiane.
She wondered if a likely husband existed in York. There was no one in St. Oln who’d have her, especially now that her father was gone. No Scotsman would willingly take a half-English wife.
Again, ’twas no matter. There was no one Cristiane was interested in having, either, though she did yearn for a man of her own, and a family. By the age of two and twenty, all the village lasses were well and truly wed, and some already had babes and wee children playing at their feet. It hurt Cristiane deeply to know that she was never to have the same pleasure.
She knew she was different from them. Besides being half-English, she had been reared separate from the other village children. Her father had tutored her in French and Latin, and she could read. She’d also had hours of leisure to explore the cliffs, and to learn the ways of the creatures that lived here.
’Twas no wonder none of the men of St. Oln would have her.
The brazen kittiwake approached, and with its long, sharp beak, quickly snatched the bit of bread from Cristiane’s hand. Then it hopped away to pick at its food and argue with the shy one over it. Cristiane closed her hand. She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them.
She knew she
had only a day or two left at St. Oln before the earl’s men came for her. ’Twas her mother’s dearest desire that Cristiane leave this poor, unfriendly land where Elizabeth had been banished by her own father so many years before. Now that her mother was dead and buried, Cristiane was compelled to carry out her last wish.
’Twas a bittersweet promise. Cristiane had no regrets over leaving the village of St. Oln, but when she traveled to the strange land to the south, she would lose the comforting presence of the familiar birds and the wee creatures that nested on her beloved cliffs.
But she had no choice in the matter. Her English-bred mother had been wife to the Mac Dhiubh, and therefore tolerated as long as there was peace in the land, and the laird was alive. But the once-prosperous St. Oln had fallen on hard times. War with the English king and with neighboring clans had made the people suspicious of all outsiders, including Lady Elizabeth and even Cristiane
Domhnall. Her father’s influence was no longer a force to be reckoned with.
Cristiane had always known she had ties in England. Her mother’s elder brother was the Earl of Learick, away south in the land of York, and it had been her mother’s last wish that Cristiane remove to his estates there. On her deathbed, Elizabeth had made her daughter promise to go with the earl’s men when they came for her.
Cristiane had no idea what her mother’s connection was to the Earl of Bitterlee, or why ’twas Bitterlee’s men who would come for her. By the time her mother had spoken of these plans, she had been too ill to be questioned. It still seemed strange to Cristiane that it was not her uncle who was coming for her, to take her directly to York.
Ah, well… ’twas
too late now to learn any more from her mother. Elizabeth had rarely spoken of her family until the very end, so Cristiane knew little of them. Only that her mother had been disowned by her father all those years before, and sent away to St. Oln to marry Domhnall Mac Dhiubh. Domhnall had been chosen because her Yorkish uncle had known him in Paris years before.
Cristiane sighed as the first drops of rain touched her face. ’Twas spring and the weather was fine, but the rain was cold and biting. She gathered up her thin, ragged skirt and climbed to her shallow cave, where a few of her precious belongings were stored. Since no one ever came up here, Cristiane knew they were safe.
’Twas a strange provision, Adam thought, that the Mac Dhiubh girl be allowed to adjust to Bitterlee before he made her his wife. Still, he’d allowed Sir Charles to agree to it when he wrote to Elizabeth Mac Dhiubh. After all, it suited Adam’s own purposes perfectly. This way, he would not be compelled to wed the girl if she were unsatisfactory.
Nay, ’twas lucky for him that her mother had insisted she be given time to adjust to Bitterlee before he even suggested they wed. ’Twould give him time to evaluate and adjust, as well.
Adam doubted the girl would be suitable, anyway. Even if she
half-English, she’d been raised here among the lowland Scots, barbaric people who had a decided mistrust of all things English. Clan Mac Dhiubh might even be responsible for harrying English border estates.
Adam did not
need a bloodthirsty Scot for a wife.
The village of St. Oln was a poor one, he thought, as he and his escort dismounted in front of its ramshackle stone church. His leg, horribly butchered during the clash at Falkirk, pained him from sitting so long in the saddle. The cold rain hadn’t helped, either. He stood still a moment as his two knights flanked him, then he limped to the church steps, glancing around him at the village.
Here lived the true victims of the wars, he thought, the people who remained after the battles, ragged and hungry and disillusioned. The villagers gathered their children and scampered into their huts in order to avoid the three hauberk-clad English knights who rode in, just as bold as could be.
“Be ye the Sassenach lord, then?” a deep masculine voice intoned from the open door at the top of the stairs.
Adam glanced up to find a grizzled old village priest looking down at him. He gave a quick nod and started up the steps.
“I thought ye’d have been here ’afore now,” the old man said, turning to move out of the rain.
“If you would tell my men where to find Lady Elizabeth,” Adam said, grateful to step into the relative warmth of the church, “they will fetch her and her daughter here.”
They’d ridden past a broken-down, stone-and-timber keep that was clearly no habitable abode for anyone. Not even a Scot. So Lady Elizabeth must be housed in one of the hovels that lined the narrow lane. Adam hoped she was not too frail to travel, thus delaying their departure from this unpleasant town.
“Nay need fer that,” the priest replied. “Everyone in St. Oln saw ye comin’—it willna be long before the lass arrives.”
mother?” Adam asked.
“Passed on a fortnight ago, God rest her soul,” the priest replied, crossing himself as he spoke. “The lass is alone…
The cleric’s words added a sharp chill to the cold Adam already felt clear to his bones. What now? The agreement was for Adam to escort Lady Elizabeth and her daughter to Bitterlee, where they would spend the summer. Then, if all was favorable, the lass would become his bride. If not, he would see that the two women were transported to York.
Now that she was alone, would Adam still be expected to take Lady Cristiane to Bitterlee? Did the agreement still hold?
“Come,” the priest said, dodging the trickle of rain that dripped through the leaky roof. “Warm yer bones a bit.” He led the three men to a brazier near the altar and held his own hands out to warm them. Adam and his two men did the same. “Cristiane canna remain here at St. Oln any longer. Now that both her father
her mother are gone, ’tis only a matter of time afore somethin’ happens to the lass.
“I promised her dyin’ mother I’d see that yer end of the bargain was met. Take her to yer island home, my Sassenach lord. For the lass’s own good, and safety, take her to Bitterlee with ye.”
Adam considered the priest’s words in silence. He wondered what dire consequences would occur if Lady Cristiane remained here at St. Oln. Surely they would be minor, considering that the girl had been raised here. Her father had been head of the clan. The fact that she was half-English would be forgotten now that her mother was dead.
Harsh voices outside distracted Adam from his thoughts, and he limped to the entrance of the church to see what was afoot. The rain had let up, though there was still a salty mist in the air. The people, mostly women, had come out of their dwellings and were shouting angrily at a pair of ragged people walking through their midst, the man pulling the woman by the arm.
Cristiane,” the clergyman said, poking his head out the door.
Adam’s brows came together. The young woman wore a dingy brown kirtle that even the lowliest peasant would have shunned. She carried a small sack in one hand and moved along quickly through the hostile crowd. They shouted at her in their Scots tongue, and although Adam did not understand what they were saying, there was no mistaking the intent.
Apparently they had not forgotten the lady was half-English.
Through it all, Lady Cristiane held her head high, her back straight, her bright eyes focused ahead. Her hair was a glorious mass of shining red curls and her skin as pale as a winter moon, with the exception of the bright flush of color that bloomed on each cheek. Not one of her features was particularly remarkable, but taken together, Cristiane Mac Dhiubh was a strikingly beautiful woman.
She was not at all what he had imagined. He had not expected to be so…susceptible to the woman and her plight.
“Why are they so angry with her?” he asked, his male instincts on full alert. ’Twas all he could do to keep from rushing down into the crowd to rescue her.
The priest shrugged. “Who can really say?” he replied. “For bein’ half-English? For bein’ daughter of the laird who failed to protect us from the raidin’, blood-happy Armstrong clan?”
something—a stone, perhaps—that struck Cristiane. Suddenly a bright streak appeared on her high cheekbone, though she faltered only slightly and continued on her way in spite of the blow.
Adam could not stand still. Anger simmered as he descended the steps, moving more quickly than he had in months. When he pushed through the crowd and arrived at the lady’s side, taking her arm possessively in his own, the jeering stopped and the villagers backed off. His fierce visage dared them to throw anything else.
He gave a quick glance to the lady, and watched as one sparkling tear spilled over thick, auburn lashes. Her chin trembled almost imperceptibly, but Adam sensed fierce pride in her, a solid wall that would not allow her to show any more vulnerability than this.
He closed his right hand over hers, tucking her arm close to his waist, and proceeded to the church.
Under other circumstances, Cristiane’s knees would have gone weak at the sight of the stunning knight who came to her rescue in front of One-eye Mòrag’s cottage. The mere touch of his bare hand on her own was enough to make her tremble in awe. As it was, however, she refused to buckle in the face of the overt hostility of her father’s people.
In truth, she could not blame them for their malice. For it had been English raiders who had damaged the clan, making the Mac Dhiubhs vulnerable to the Armstrong attack that had killed so many more men, along with her father. The people of St. Oln had no reason to be sympathetic to the daughter of a Sassenach woman.
Cristiane might wish for things to be different, for acceptance and respect, but that was not to be. She was the daughter of an Englishwoman, and the people of St. Oln would never accept her. She reminded herself again that she was fortunate, indeed, to have the freedom to leave.
until she began to climb the steps with her knight rescuer that she noticed his limp. A sidelong glance revealed his strong jaw clamped tightly against the discomfort of each step. They made it up to the church doors without mishap, and the knight ushered her inside.
“Cristy,” Father Walter said familiarly, taking her hand when the knight released her. “Are ye injured, lass?”
“Nay, Father,” she replied quietly, touching her cheek with two fingers. “Merely bruised, I think.”
With his hands devoid of gauntlets, Cristiane’s knight—for that was how she thought of him—took a cloth and wiped gently at her cheek, removing the dirt and a small speck of blood that oozed from the scrape.
Cristiane stood still and searched the man’s eyes. Dark gray they were, as stormy as the sky above the thrashing sea. His brows were even darker, caught together in a frown as he dabbed at her tiny wound. His nose was straight and his lips full but well-defined. A cruel scar marred the perfection of his jaw, and Cristiane wondered what battle, what terrible wound, had caused such frightful damage to his otherwise perfect face.
If her Yorkish uncle ever found her a husband, Cristiane hoped he would be something like this man who stood, so tall and broad shouldered, before her. Many were the times she had dreamed of someone like him, with strong, but gentle hands, intense, fascinating eyes. Someone who had the prowess to keep her safe…. Cristiane had never thought her dream could be real.