Read award-winning author Amanda Forester's
thrilling short story set in medieval Scotland!
He can lead this girl to the altar, but she might be diverted along the way...
Effie Campbell cannot fathom marrying a stranger just because her brother arranged it and is determined to marry only for love. She finds an unlikely ally in Connor Maclachlan, her intended husband, who also balks at being led by his parents to the altar.
They scheme to support each other in the pursuit of true love, but when the object of her affection disappoints, she finds more than a friend in Connor.
“I dinna care who David arranged for me to wed,” declared Effie Campbell. “I shall marry the man I choose.”
Alnsworth Castle, 1358
Effie entered the great hall to raucous cheers from the crowd. She followed her brother, Laird David Campbell, and his wife, Lady Isabelle, into the hall. After years of war, Laird Campbell was hosting a May Day clan gathering, which, if the volume of cheers was any indication, was heartily appreciated.
“I suggest ye have the good sense to choose the man to whom ye are engaged,” hissed her twin sister, Elyne, walking beside her.
“I think it unfair I should no’ choose my own groom.” Effie surveyed the raucous clans, all of whom had brought their best knights. “Who is that knight?” She gave the attractive knight a smile. The man returned it with a scandalous wink.
“That is Sir Malcolm Douglas, no’ that it is any o’ yer concern. Face forward, sister! Ye are about to be introduced to yer future husband.”
“My future husband has yet to be determined,” whispered Effie with defiance, smoothing her burgundy silk gown. The presentation gown, made particularly for this momentous day, was very fine, with gold embroidered thread along the sleeves and bodice. She may reject the groom, but the gown was all hers.
“Dinna be a fool. Nobody chooses their own spouse.” Elyne smoothed her own gown, an exact copy of Effie’s but in brilliant blue. The two identical twins made quite a stir with their rich gowns and their long blond locks plaited down their backs with a gauzy veil finishing their presentation. They appeared as one accord, yet they could not be more different.
“Our brother David did. And so did our sister Cait,” protested Effie.
“Those were unusual events,” dismissed Elyne. “A lass doesna choose her own husband. ’Tis simply no’ done.”
“’Tis done in our family. And it will be done by me!”
“As ye wish. Just remember May Day celebrations occur but once a year. We have no’ been able to celebrate for many years due to the war, and who knows what the next year will bring. We are already nineteen years old! If ye dinna wish to see twenty and still be unwed…”
“I have no intention of waiting another year,” sniffed Effie, shuddering at the mere thought of being twenty and unwed. At nineteen some might say they were already past their prime, and she was determined not to leave this May Day celebration without a man to call her own. She simply intended to be the one doing the choosing. She glanced around at the cheering throng of manhood before her. Honestly, with all these options, it could not possibly be so difficult to find a man who made her heart sing.
David and Isabelle reached the raised dais and sat at the high table before the assembled knights and ladies. Many notable clans were assembled, including the Douglases, the Stewarts, the Maclachlans, the Grants, and others.
Since Elyne was the elder by all of a few minutes, she was introduced to her intended first, a large, burly man. If Elyne had any qualms about her intended, she kept them to herself and took her seat at the table with a placid look that gave away nothing.
Now it was Effie’s turn. Despite being quite certain she would never marry the man, still her heart pounded as the herald spoke her name.
“Euphemia Campbell, sister to the Laird David Campbell,” cried the herald. “May I present Sir Connor Maclachlan, honorable knight of the Maclachlan clan and son and heir to the Laird Maclachlan.”
A tall man stood before her and bowed. He had short black hair and silver eyes that had an odd glint in the candlelight. He wore the Highland plaid in the form of the great kilt, as did her brothers. He was not as broad chested as some warriors in the room, but he was a head taller than most and she had to own that he was an attractive man. Though where others smiled and laughed, his demeanor was sober. He did not appear unkind, but neither did he smile.
Anyone who knew Effie would agree she enjoyed lively conversation, amusing diversions, and a good laugh. A somber man would not do for her at all. No, she was confident in her decision. Sir Connor Maclachlan was not the man for her.
Please, Lord, help me to find my true love. It was a fervent prayer.
After the merriment of the banquet, Effie climbed the north tower of Castle Alnsworth. The castle was Lady Isabelle’s inheritance, thus acquired by the Campbell clan when David wed her. She was an English lady by blood, and the castle was situated on the border between England and Scotland. David had taken up residence during the war between the two countries as a good fortress to prevent the English from making incursions into Scotland.
Even now that the war was over, David remained at Alnsworth, knowing that if he ever vacated the estate, it would quickly be retaken by the English. At some point, their longtime foe would demand the castle’s return, but until terms could be made, David would defend his wife’s property.
Effie climbed the stone stairs to the top of the tower, welcoming the cool, fresh air. The great hall was hot and the air was thick with the smell of roasting meat, wood smoke, and throngs of people. She enjoyed the festivities, but a cool respite after hours of feasting was a welcome relief. She pulled herself up through the trapdoor to the top of the tower and stood, breathing deep.
“Good evening,” said a low voice.
Effie spun around and nearly fell back through the trapdoor. “Oh my word! Sir Connor, ye gave me a fright!” Effie regarded her intended with certain displeasure and a pounding heart.
“I apologize if I frightened ye.”
Effie took a breath and remembered her manners. “Nay, I should look where I am going. But why are ye here?”
“My room is one below. I thought to get some cool air.”
“My room is two below,” said Effie. The fact that she had the same thought as he struck her as wrong somehow. She would prefer they share nothing in common. “’Twas hot in the hall.”
“Aye,” he said from the other side of the tower.
Silence descended on them, surrounding them like the black night sky. Effie was not sure how to voice what she wanted to say, and Sir Connor appeared to have no interest in helping with any sort of conversation.
“I dinna wish to marry ye,” blurted Effie.
Connor’s eyebrows shot up and he said nothing for a moment, regarding her with surprise. He bowed, his face somber once more. “As ye wish.” He stepped toward the trapdoor to leave the tower.
“I know this must sound daft,” Effie hastened to add. “But I wish to do my own choosing when it comes to marriage.”
“Have I offended?” Connor stopped, his silver eyes searching hers.
“Nay, I can have no complaint against ye. I find ye a very attractive man.” Effie stopped short. Attractive? Had she just said attractive? Of all the benign compliments she could have given, why did she say attractive? “I mean, ye are a nice man, a good match.”
Connor stood beside her along the stone battlements. “But ye do no’ wish to be my wife.”
Effie had to tilt her head up to look him in the eye. She was relatively tall herself, as were all the Campbells, which made his own height more notable. She swallowed hard on a throat that was suddenly dry. “I understand I have strange notions, but I have watched how happy my brother has become after he wedded Isabelle. He was supposed to marry another but followed his heart, and they have both been verra happy. I also wish to find true love.”
Effie looked away, out to the thousands of stars twinkling in the inky black sky. “I’m sure ye think me touched in the head. Everyone says I’m mad.”
“Nay,” said Connor thoughtfully. “There is some sense to what ye say. I dinna wish to marry a lass who would be displeased wi’ the union.”
“Indeed!” Effie was pleased he did not immediately reject her concerns. “Ye should find a lass who truly loves ye to be yer bride.”
“Faith, there is truth in what ye say. I shall talk to my parents and yer brother tomorrow and dissolve the arrangement.”
“Aye,” said Effie slowly, considering with displeasure what her brother’s reaction would be. She knew he would never force her to wed against her will, but he had spent months arranging a good match for her, and she did not wish him to think her ungrateful. “My brother will no’ be pleased.”
“My parents less so,” said Connor.
“What if we dinna tell them?”
Connor raised an eyebrow. “And what should we say when it comes time for the wedding?”
“That winna be for a while. We can pretend to go along with the plan and use the time to find marriage partners that are more suited to us. When we both find a partner to our liking, we can tell our relatives. I warrant our decision would be less disappointing if we had a substitute in mind.”
A small smile crept slowly over Connor’s lips. “So we feign an engagement until we can find marriage partners of our own.”
“’Tis a goodly plan.” Effie smiled in return. She could not help it. Sir Connor Maclachlan was a handsome man and even more so when he smiled.
“Aye, particularly no’ telling my mother until necessary.”
“Yer mother has been anticipating the marriage?”
“I am her only bairn who lived past childhood.”
“I am sorry.” The wind turned cold and a chill shuddered down her spine. “I have fourteen brothers and sisters including a twin sister from whom I have rarely ever been parted. I canna imagine being an only child.”
Connor shrugged. “It has been hard on my mother, burying so many children. But now her main focus is me and my future bride. I fear she may be a wee bit overbearing.”
“I would’na mind. I miss my father and my mother.”
“I am sorry for yer loss as well.”
It was Effie’s turn to shrug. It had been four years since her parents had died from the fever. “Between the two of us, we make one whole family,” she said with a smile, trying to turn the sad topic into something more lighthearted.
“Too bad we shall ne’er be united,” said Connor with an equally light tone.
“Aye, indeed.” Though said in jest, Effie could not help but feel that perhaps it would be her loss not to be connected with his family. Yet she was certain she made the right choice. She must choose a man who loved her. None other would do.