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.
Alnsworth Castle, 1358
“I dinna care who David arranged for me to wed,” declared Effie Campbell. “I shall marry the man I choose.”
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.
Effie awoke to a morning full of hope and bright with promise. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and she had never been closer to finding her true love.
Her sister Elyne, on the other hand, was not having as lovely a morning. She banged about the solar with Winifred, her merlin falcon, perched on her arm. “I should take Fred to get some exercise,” grumbled Elyne, referring to her precious hooded falcon.
“Woud’na do ye any harm to get some fresh air,” chimed in Gwyn, their younger sister. “Ye’ve been grumbling about all morning.”
“I dinna grumble,” defended Elyne. “And should ye no’ be helping Isabelle or making yerself useful?”
“Fine. Send me down to the kitchens while ye both go meet yer husbands. ’Tis no’ fair David made betrothals for ye both and no’ for me.”
“Now look who is grumbling,” said Effie with a laugh. “Go on wi’ ye, Gwyn. Be a good lass and help Isabelle.”
Gwyn turned on her heel with her pert nose in the air and stomped off to find their sister-in-law.
Effie went to help her sister, who was struggling to tie her cloak one-handed so as not to disturb her falcon. “Are ye displeased wi’ the man David chose?”
“Nay!” shouted Elyne, a bit too loud to be believed.
Effie put her hands up and walked back in surrender.
Elyne’s shoulders slumped. “I apologize. Some exercise will do me good.”
“Go for yer ride, sister, and think on this. I plan to find a man of my own choosing. I plan to find a man I love, and who returns my affections. Ye can do the same.”
Elyne only shook her head and slumped away to the stables.
Effie wished her well and skipped down the tower stairs to the courtyard. It was a mass of people and excitement.
“What is all the to-do about?” she asked a ghillie hurrying by.
“The clans decided to hold a tournament for May Day!”
“A tournament!” Effie could hardly keep herself from squeaking in joy. She had only been to a tournament once before and was thrilled by the prospect. May Day was also the traditional time to celebrate the legend of Robin Hood with plays and even tournaments. If it was to be a tournament of Robin Hood, there would need to be a Maid Marian. Her excitement soared for a moment but plummeted back when she remembered she had other sisters who would no doubt take that prized role.
Still, the day was fine and the prospect for amusement high. She went further into the large, grassy courtyard and waved at her brother, David, who was directing the men to build the lists. He was too busy to notice, but another man, Malcolm Douglas, waved back instead.
She raised an eyebrow and turned away, as was proper. But then she turned back with a sly smile, which was not proper in the least. The courtyard was a chaotic scene as people rushed about setting up everything needed for a proper tournament. Despite the yelling and banging, everyone seemed in high spirits; the prospect of watching the young knights of the assembled clans demonstrate their skill and bravery as they bashed at each other with swords and lances was a happy thought to one and all.
Fortunately for the festivities, the courtyard was a large one and relatively flat, giving enough space not only for the contestants and onlookers, but also a variety of tradesmen who had spontaneously set up shop in tents along the thick castle walls. Effie let her nose guide her to roasted apples and savory meat pies. The aroma was heavenly.
She stood outside the tent, realizing too late she had not brought a single coin with her. Her shoulders slumped with disappointment.
“Two pies, good sir,” said a deep voice behind her.
Effie turned to find the muscular figure of Sir Malcolm Douglas. Her heart skipped a beat. He was bigger and even more handsome at close range.
He gave her a winning smile. “I dinna believe we have met. I am Sir Malcolm Douglas, the knight who will win this tournament. A pie, m’lady?”
Effie accepted the savory meat pie with pleasure. “Ye are mighty sure o’ yerself.”
“I speak naught but the truth. When it comes to a lance or a sword, there be none who can best me.”
“If there be a contest for braggarts, I am certain ye would emerge the victor,” teased Effie with a smile.
“Ah, ye wound me.” Malcolm clasped his chest. “But aye, I have no doubt I should win any contest ye care to put before me.”
“An interesting challenge, sir knight. I shall have to think of the contest.”
“For ye, anything!” Sir Malcolm swept her a bow and strode off into the crowd.
Effie beamed after him, pleased her plan was working so well so fast. Here was the man for her.
“Miss Effie?” a ghillie spoke at her side.
“Lady Maclachlan has invited ye to sup with her.”
“Oh, aye.” Her elation plummeted. Effie followed the ghillie back into the castle with heavy feet. She could not very well avoid Connor’s mother, but she did wish she could escape the audience. She wanted to find true love, not be false to anyone.
Effie arrived at the Maclachlan solar to find this was not just an intimate gathering for herself and her supposed future mother-in-law. It appeared the better part of the Maclachlan clan was present, including her supposed intended, who stood straight and tall as a lance.
“My dear Euphemia.” Laird Maclachlan himself greeted her at the door. He had a well-trimmed silver beard to match his silver eyes. He was tall, like his son. “Ye do us great honor to break bread with us.”
Laird Maclachlan offered her his arm and walked her slowly to the table. He walked with a noticeable limp and Effie was at once conscious of the honor he had given her by walking her into the room.
“The honor is mine,” murmured Effie.
Lady Maclachlan gazed at her with tears in her eyes. “Effie, my sweet child. I have always wanted a daughter, and now the Lord has answered my prayers.” Lady Maclachlan embraced her firmly, then squeezed even tighter. Effie patted the woman on the back, desperately trying to draw breath. The embrace was apparently not going to end soon.
I’m sorry, mouthed Connor from behind his mother.
“There now, let the lass breathe,” said Laird Maclachlan, and much to Effie’s relief, Lady Maclachlan let her go.
Effie hoped to eat a little and run away, but Laird and Lady Maclachlan clearly had other ideas. First Effie was introduced to Connor’s five uncles and their wives, then she met his seven female cousins and his five male cousins and their respective spouses. Much to Effie’s embarrassment, everyone she met presented her with a gift for her wedding. Soon she had a bounty of gifts piled around her feet: silk cloth, feather pillows, embroidered linen, silver candlesticks, gold thread—their generosity knew no bounds.
“And I give to ye this.” Lady Maclachlan nodded to two ghillies who carried a large, engraved cedar chest to the middle of the room.
At Lady Maclachlan’s urging, Effie opened the chest and found a fortune in gowns. There were silk gowns and wool gowns and linen gowns. There were linen chemises and gauzy veils. The materials were fine and the needlework on the gowns was exquisite.
Effie shook her head, feeling smaller and smaller with each passing minute. “Nay, ’tis too much,” she whispered. She glanced at Connor, whose lips tightened into a thin line.
“I had many bairns whom the Lord called to heaven before me,” Lady Maclachlan spoke in a near whisper and the entire room silenced. “I made a wardrobe for each o’ my daughters and now ye shall wear them and turn my sorrow into joy, my suffering into rejoicing.”
“I…I dinna ken what to say.” Effie’s voice was weak, much like how she felt. How could she break this woman’s heart by not marrying her son?
“Ye dinna need to say a thing.” Lady Maclachlan’s voice was warm and she took Effie’s hands in her own. “I ken ye lost yer own sweet mother, as I have lost my daughters. I only hope in time ye may look upon me as yer own mother.”
Tears sprung to Effie’s eyes, though whether due to the kindness of Connor’s mother or her own guilt at her deception, she could not say. This earned Effie another hug from Connor’s mother, which was soon joined by the aunts and the female cousins, all of whom were speaking of happy futures and wiping tears of joy from their eyes. Effie had never felt so adored nor so low.
The meal was a long one. The nicer everyone was to Effie, the worse she felt. When the food was finally cleared from the table, Connor asked quietly to speak with her privately and she indicated the tower. Unfortunately, the comment was overheard and one of the uncles announced the young couple was seeking time alone.
The clan made happy humming noises until Effie thought she might expel her meal. She smiled weakly and curtsied her way to the door.
“I had no idea they were going to do that,” said Connor when they finally were alone on the tower.
“How can yer family be so nice?” Effie accused. “Are they always like that?”
“They are a kind people,” Connor admitted. “And my mother has been planning my wedding day since I was in the cradle.”
“Och, yer mother. How can I disappoint her?” Effie leaned against the stone parapets. “I wish yer mother was less kind. I may have to marry ye after all,” she said gloomily.
“Let us see what we can do to avoid that tragedy,” said Connor dryly.
“I dinna mean to suggest marrying ye would be…” Effie paused, trying to find the right words.
“A fate of unspeakable horror?” suggested Connor in a helpful sort of tone.
“Nay, ye are jesting wi’ me. Ye are quite a goodly match. And even if ye were a troll, yer mother’s trunk full o’ gowns would turn the head of any young lass.”
“I shall be sure to mention it in conversation when I find a prospective bride.”
“Aye, do. Better yet, hang them on parade and take the lass with the largest dowry,” said Effie, continuing the jest.
“Ah, but I think my parents already did that.”
Effie turned away with a blush. The Campbells were a wealthy clan, and she herself was well-dowered, though it embarrassed her to think of it.
“I am sorry if I offended,” said Conner in a soft voice.
“Nay, what ye said is true. I understand I can add to the coffers of any young man. Yet I should so much wish to be prized for my inner character or even my outward appearance, rather than my price.”
Connor leaned an elbow on the stone parapets beside her. “And so ye shall.”
“I thought perhaps today…” Effie stared over the lush green valley below, dotted scenically with white, fluffy sheep. It was not quite shearing time and the sheep were heavy laden, and she knew from experience rather smelly, but at this distance they were like picturesque little clouds dotting the landscape.
“Ye met someone?” Connor’s voice was neutral. He also looked out over the valley.
“Aye.” Effie shrugged. “Mayhap. Yet how can I seek true love and break yer mother’s heart?”
“My mother will survive, make no mistake. She wants to see me happy. If I convince her I have found a lass that makes me happier, she will turn her love to a new bride.”
“And my dowry?” Effie was afraid to look at him.
“’Tis no concern.”
Effie exhaled a breath she had not known she was holding. “Truly? I should no’ like to hurt anyone.”
“Yer scruples do ye credit, but fear not. Now tell me, who is the man who has captured yer heart?”
Effie could not help but smile when she thought of him. “His name is Sir Malcolm Douglas. Do ye know o’ him?”
“Aye, but no’ well.” Connor folded his arms across his chest.
“He was quite attentive to me today. And what o’ ye? Have ye found another yer mother will adore?” Effie rejected a pang of regret that she would not be that lass. She could not ask for a more loving family.
“Nay, no’ yet. I shall have to look wi’ more diligence.”
“Aye, ye should. I canna verra well marry another if yer mother has no bride for her son.”
“Verra true,” conceded Connor, yet his attention was taken by something in the sky. “Do ye have falcon messengers?”
“Nay. My brother keeps falcons and hawks only for hunting. Perhaps another clan. Why do ye ask?”
“A falcon coming in wi’ a missive tied to its leg.”
“Where?” Effie scanned the skies. Connor pointed, and following his direction, Effie noted only a black dot in the sky. “How can ye see that?”
“I have been told my eyes are good.”
“If ye can see anything other than a black speck, ye have uncommonly good eyes.”
“The falcon does seem to be heading this way,” said Connor.
Effie could only agree and watched as the bird flew closer. “It’s Fred!”
“Winifred. My sister’s merlin falcon. Ye say it has something on its leg?” Effie held out her arm as the bird approached, hoping it would think her to be Elyne and come home. She was in luck. Fred swooped in and gracefully pulled up to land on Effie’s arm. The talons were sharp, but she was more interested in reading the missive that was attached.
Without having to be asked, Connor gently held the bird still and untied the little scroll of paper, handing it to her.
Effie read it quickly as the dreadful meaning gripped her. She grabbed Conner’s arm. “Och, nay! We must see David at once!”
Connor followed the attractive form of Effie Campbell as she ran into the solar where David was conferring with some of the other lairds regarding the tournament. Already this clan gathering was much different than what he expected, and if the missive was correct, it was about to get even more complicated.
“David!” Effie rushed to him, the scrawled note in her hand.
“What is wrong?” Laird Campbell was a large man, quick with a frown. He gave Connor a steely look. It was clear he would have more than words with anyone who hurt his sister.
“Elyne’s falcon returned with a note,” cried Effie. “She went for a ride and has seen the English marching against us! She is caught outside the valley wi’ Tavish Grant and they canna return wi’out being seen.”
“The English have come now?” David Campbell reached for the missive and Effie handed it over. His brow furrowed deeper as he read the small note. “Ye are sure this came from Elyne’s falcon?”
“I am. I am sure my twin wrote that missive,” said Effie.
David turned to the other lairds. “Forgive this interruption. I must investigate this report.”
He ran for the outer wall walk, followed by Connor, Effie, and all the lairds. On the outer wall walk, they all scanned the valley below. Were the English marching to attack?
“I see nothing,” muttered David.
“Elyne would never send such a missive wi’out good cause,” defended Effie.
Connor scanned the valley carefully, methodically working his way up into the hills beyond. At last he saw what he feared he might. “Look!” He pointed in the far hills. “I see something. A glint of metal.”
David squinted in the direction Connor was pointing. “I see naught.”
“Trust him, David,” said Effie. “He has the sight.”
Connor was pleased by her defense of him. So far his prospective bride wished to have little to do with him. At least she appreciated his vision if nothing else.
David turned to Connor as if evaluating his worth. David could not see what he saw. Would he trust him? Finally, David gave a curt nod. “Ring the alarm, bring everyone inside the gates!”
A few moments later, the bells rang and people ran about, rushing into the castle gates. People in the valley ran across the green toward the castle, herding their animals as they went.
“We need to prepare.” David took Effie’s hand and put it into Connor’s. He wrapped their joined hands in his own. “Take care of her,” he said to Connor. His eyes bore into him and Connor understood; David was trusting his sister to his protection.
“I will,” said Connor. It was a vow.
David squeezed his hand, sealing the arrangement. Effie may wish to wed another, but David Campbell certainly expected Connor to wed his sister and care for her forever.
With that, Campbell left, barking orders to servants and guests alike. The lairds followed him with equally vociferous instructions to their clansmen.
Connor stood holding hands with Effie, momentarily alone on the wall walk. Connor thought to drop her hand, but he noted tears welling in her eyes and held on in the hope it would bring her comfort. The wind played with her blond tresses and she turned her face to the sun. She was beautiful. Absolutely stunning.
He could not believe his good fortune when he first met her. She was the most beautiful lass he had ever seen, outshining even her identical twin in his estimation. He had always been of a serious, taciturn nature. Bonnie lasses left him with little conversation; Effie Campbell left him speechless.
Effie took a deep breath, attempting to keep her emotions at bay. It was not to be. Tears spilled from her beautiful blue eyes.
“May I be of help to ye?” asked Connor softly, even as Effie attempted surreptitiously to wipe the tears from her eyes. If his mother had taught him anything, it was how to be comforting to a lady in pain.
“My sister is somewhere out there with some strange man. The English are coming to attack us or put us under siege. And yer mother is probably embroidering even more lovely gowns for me.”
“Nay, dinna be distressed.”
Effie looked up with deep blue, swimming eyes.
“My mother only does her needlework in the morning light.”
His dry humor brought a brief smile to her lips. It hovered but vanished as quickly as it came. “My poor sister. She is trapped out there with some unknown man and the English army.”
“I know Tavish a little. He is a good man. It will be well.”
“How can ye know for sure?”
Connor shrugged. “I canna know for sure, but ye need to have hope. One canna live wi’out hope.” It was the one thing he had learned from the losses of all his young siblings. When trials came, you could either crumble in defeat or hold on to hope.
Effie took a deep, calming breath. “Aye. Ye be right. To live wi’out hope ’tis no life at all.”
“Aye.” Connor still held Effie’s hand. He had no interest in letting it go.
Effie turned to the valley and gasped, yanking her hand free to cover her mouth with her shock. “I can see them now.”
Connor nodded. He had been watching the English army approach for a while. They had clearly come prepared to take back Alnsworth castle—by force if necessary. The bright sun glinted off their armor, shields, and tips of their pikes in a display both impressive and terrifying. Mounted knights approached first, followed by divisions of soldiers marching in tight, precise formations. They were not serfs rounded up for a melee; these were seasoned warriors, experienced and deadly.
“I fear my hope is beginning to wane,” whispered Effie.
“Then look away,” replied Connor. “I find in a battle between hope and truth, it is best to turn away from the real and cling to what one hopes for.”
“And ye find this practical?”
“Nay. But I feel better.”
A slow smile crept over Effie’s face and he returned it. Something warm and tingly coursed through him. He had expected to secure an arranged and advantageous marriage as was expected for the future laird of his clan. He had not expected to feel warm and tingly for anyone, certainly not his bride. It was…unnatural.
Could Effie’s odd notions about finding true love actually have merit? He edged a little closer to her even as the English marched ever nearer. As a sober, thoughtful, reasonable man, he might have to explore this befuddling concept of love.
The castle was unnaturally silent, as if everyone, from the master to the stable lad’s dog, were holding their breath. Effie crouched behind the stone battlements. Her brother would not be pleased, but she had to see what was going to happen.
The English mounted knights approached, forming a long line. The foot soldiers stood behind them in neat rows. Effie understood this show of force was intended to impress, but it was depressing just how effective the spectacle was. Her brother rode out to meet the knights in full battle dress. He was flanked by all the lairds in similar attire. Effie noted that Connor rode forward in place of his father.
“Hail Alnsworth Castle!” cried an English lord when they were just within bowshot of each other. “I come with a message from His Majesty the King of England and France. You are inhabiting the castle and grounds belonging to Lord Lockton. It is hereby demanded that you remove yourselves immediately or a state of war will exist between us.”
“I am the Laird Campbell,” bellowed her brother at them. “I am the rightful master of Alnsworth through marriage to Lady Isabelle, the Countess of Tynsdale. I dinna recognize yer claim of ownership.”
“Alnsworth Castle was granted to Lady Isabelle’s cousin, Lord Lockton, by His Majesty King Edward the third.” One of the mounted knights held aloft a scroll.
“Yer king is not my king. I dinna recognize his authority over me, my people, or my land. However, I am willing to negotiate following the terms I have set.”
The voices of the knights dropped and Effie strained to hear the conversation against the rushing of the wind. One English knight removed his helm and stepped forward. “What are your terms?” asked the younger knight.
Campbell nodded to Connor, who took up a bow. Effie gasped. Was Connor to fire the first shot? Was it to be war?
Connor pulled back on his bow and Effie noticed something peculiar with the arrow. He released his shaft and it flew true to the wooden shield slung at the side of one of the knights. It stuck into the wood, a small bundle of papers wrapped around the arrow shaft. Connor had shot a message attached to the arrow, now stuck to the shield.
It was an amazing shot.
Effie’s jaw dropped and stayed there. It was more than remarkable; it was an extraordinary risk. If the shaft had gone astray even the smallest bit, it could have hit the knight’s horse—or the knight himself. As it was, it was stuck to the middle of the shield. Her brother must have complete confidence in Connor, or he would never have let him shoot. If he had missed, it would have been immediate war.
The horses of the English knights skittered sideways and their impressive line was ruined. Effie smiled. There were other more conventional ways to deliver their terms to the English, but her brother was sending a message. He was not afraid to fight.
She hoped and prayed it would not come to that.
Her brother and the lairds spun their mounts and galloped back to the castle. Connor looked up. She could not see his face in the distance, but he saw her—she knew it. Effie quickly made her way down to the courtyard. It would not do to let her brother find her on the walk. From now on, she would need to be more cautious.
Despite the number of people present, the courtyard was oddly quiet. Everyone was wondering what Campbell would say. Would it be war? Would it be a siege? Could they negotiate themselves out of it?
These clans were their friends and allies; they could count on them in a fight. Yet Effie had seen how many English stood outside their door. A fight would be disastrous to both parties. No, they must negotiate.
Finally, David Campbell appeared on the interior wall walk above them.
“The tournament will continue.” David spoke only these four words and then disappeared once more inside the tower.
His words were greeted with stunned silence, then a slow rumbling of cheers like a sleeping giant waking from a long sleep rose and echoed across the courtyard. If the games were to continue, things must not be so bleak.
Effie was not sure what her brother was about. The tense interchange she heard did not lead her to believe negotiations would be successful. As a loving and helpful sister, she decided to go share this assessment with her brother at once.
She ran up the stone staircase of the tower he’d disappeared into. As she was going up, she met Connor coming down. He greeted her with a frown.
“What were ye doing on the wall walk?” he asked.
“I wanted to hear what the English would do.” Effie spoke as if the answer was obvious, because of course, it was.
“Ye must ken yer place was not on the outer wall.”
“Aye. But it is no’ yer place to tell me so.” Effie folder her arms across her chest. She would not be chastised by anyone. Or at least not him. If it were her brother, she would accept the criticism, for she knew it was warranted. But the same words coming from Connor stung more sharply than she expected.
Connor pressed his lips together as if preventing whatever he wanted to say from escaping his lips. He gave her a brief nod then proceeded to walk down the stairs.
“Why does my brother continue the games?” asked Effie as he passed. He stopped on the stair below hers and looked at her, eye to eye. A flash of heat warmed her chest. She had never been so close to him.
“Laird Campbell does not wish his guests to be disappointed because an English lord decided to show up at his door.”
“Do ye think the English will negotiate? Do ye think we can escape wi’out bloodshed or starvation?” Effie put a hand on the cold stone wall to steady herself. She spoke the fear she was trying to keep at bay. She stared down at the hem of her gown. When she raised her eyes, he had leaned closer.
“Dinna fear. Yer brother is a smart one. He is ready to give this castle back to the English. All that remains is the terms.” His voice was soft and reassuring, but Effie was not convinced.
“Are ye sure then o’ the outcome?”
“I can ne’er be sure. But I do know Campbell is a wise one. I’d trust my future to him.”
“Whether I will or nil, I suppose we all must,” said Effie. They were surrounded now. No one could leave this party.
“Hope,” said Connor with a small smile. “Ye must have hope.”
Effie took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Aye, hope.” Speaking the word infused its meaning into her heart. “Hope,” she repeated for good measure. She glanced up the tower stairs and realized she no longer needed to speak her fears to her brother. Let him worry about the English. Hope. She would live with it.
“Are ye going to compete in the tournament?” she asked.
He shrugged and turned to continue down the narrow staircase with her following. “I had no’ thought to do so.”
“It may be a good way to meet a future bride,” said Effie, though Connor finding another woman to marry was the last thing on her mind. She wanted to marry another, that much was true, but the thought that he also would find someone else did not sit well.
“Aye.” Connor looked away. “Ye ken ladies prefer a man in the games?”
Effie smiled. The answer was obvious. Naturally, all women, great and lowly alike, would delight in a dashing knight who braved the lists, all for the glory and honor of a single kiss. “I’ve heard tell ladies fancy a man who has earned his spurs and is not afeared to use them.”
“Then I shall try my hand at anything ye wish.”
Effie smiled. “Then ye shall enter the Robin Hood challenge!”
The mood of the people in the courtyard had shifted multiple times throughout the day. First joyful excitement, then fearful apprehension, then some combination of the two, enlarging every emotion, making the very ground of the courtyard hum with excitement. There was no escaping the walls now, so everyone was crowded together, further magnifying the situation.
Knights brought a shield with their clan crest to join the tournament and enter into particular events. Men eager to participate swarmed the entrance tables, and ladies eager to note who volunteered for which event gathered close to watch, with Effie among them. Connor stepped forward and waited his turn to present his shield and join the tournament.
“Greetings, m’lady.” Suddenly someone wrapped a hand around her waist.
She jumped in surprise, only to find the cheeky Sir Malcolm Douglas standing beside her. It was terribly forward and Effie should be offended. To her shame, she was more pleased than outraged. In the crowd of people, she doubted anyone would notice, so she put her hand over his.
“Good day to ye, Sir Malcolm.” She smiled when she said it.
“Ah, a smile so bright. You are a welcome sight after all the grim grumblings since the English arrived at your door.” He grinned back at her.
“Ye have a welcome smile, Sir Malcolm, for I find I need some cheering. Will ye compete in the tournament?”
“Compete? Nay, my lass. I shall win this tournament. Laird Campbell has promised a golden shield to the winner and it shall be mine.”
“Ye are too cocksure, sir knight,” she chastised.
He leaned closer. “Aye, but I ken what I’ve got to be sure about,” he drawled in a seductive tone. “Meet me tonight.”
“Passage behind the great hall, none but the servants tread there.”
Effie shrugged one shoulder coyly. “I shall see if I am available.”
Malcolm gave her a wink and strode manfully into the crowd. Effie noted the other men parted to let him pass. He was a big man, a strong man, a man not lacking in confidence, and perhaps he had every reason to be self-assured. On sheer size alone, he could best any man in the castle.
Was there anything more to want in a man?
David Campbell addressed the clans from the high table in the great hall. The conversations hushed as he rose. In the night, the many campfires of the English could be seen from the walls. There was not a person in the hall who did not remember how the English had burned their crops, decimated their coffers, and destroyed their towns not three years ago the last time English soldiers had invaded.
“The tournament begins on the morrow,” began Campbell as if nothing was amiss. “I am pleased to see so many o’ the young lads have pledged their shields in the competition. Three contests have been chosen to determine an overall winner o’ the tournament. Since May Day we honor Robin Hood, archery will be the first contest. Sir Robin also was skilled in battle, so the sword shall be the next contest. And to please the ladies, a joust shall be our final sport. The overall winner shall be awarded this golden shield and a kiss from our lovely Maid Marian.” David gestured to Effie.
Cheers erupted from the crowd, drowning out Effie’s exclamation of shock. “What’s this? Why me give a kiss?” she asked Isabelle.
“You are the highest ranking unmarried maid of the host,” replied Isabelle in a mild tone.
“But Elyne…” began Effie before she remembered her sister’s predicament.
“Is not here. So you shall be our Maid Marian,” said Isabelle with a smile.
“Me?” Effie almost squealed with excitement. It was tradition during the May Day celebration to honor Robin Hood and his lady love Maid Marian. With so many elder sisters, Effie had never considered the honor would go to her.
Effie smiled radiantly and waved to their guests, enjoying every moment of it. Among the crowd, she noted Connor, who clapped politely. Unlike Malcolm, who whooped something fierce and winked and possibly made a crude gesture. She supposed he was being friendly.
“Following the individual events,” continued Laird Campbell when the cheers had tapered, “we shall have the group melee.”
Another cheer erupted from the crowd. This was the grand spectacle of every tournament. Two teams charged the field for a mock battle. Despite the blunt weapons used, these battles were brutal and many a good knight had been injured or even killed in the melees. It was one of the reasons why there was an attempt by some to ban tournaments, though the local populace continued the tradition.
David held up his hands to gain the attention of the crowd again. “Now I want ye lads no’ to go too hard, for we may soon need every man to have a little melee with our English friends who have come to join our May Day celebrations.”
The crowd obligingly booed and hissed.
“I ken that some o’ ye may feel uneasy wi’ such neighbors,” continued Campbell. “But dinna fear. We plan negotiations wi’ the devils, and if that fails, we shall no’ hesitate to send them all back to Hades.”
The crowd cheered again. Neither David Campbell nor any Scotsman present held love in his chest for the English. The food arrived at that moment and the crowd cheered again. The tone of the evening was of frenetic festivities. Everyone seemed determined to have a good time, no matter the consequences.
Effie helped herself to some roast and took more than one savory pie from the platter heaped with food. It was then that she realized the feasting was continuing. There was no attempt to conserve food. They would not last long in a siege.
She glanced at her brother. He was usually a cautious sort, so why not conserve? He gave her a solemn nod and she knew. There would be no siege. If an agreement could not be met, they would charge the English on the field. It would be peace or it would be war, but either way, it would be decided soon.
A rock formed in her stomach as she looked around at the feasting knights. They may soon be called upon to fight. The thought filled her with dread. Malcolm caught her eye and winked. She did not resist giving him a smile in return. What would the next few days bring for this young knight? Might this be among his last meals? It was decided. She would meet him tonight.
The night’s feasting and entertainment went late into the evening, but finally it came time for the festivities to end, at least the type of activities condoned by the host. The ladies began to retire and the activities of the men became more raucous. Chief among the merrymakers was Malcolm, whose whoops and hollers echoed cheerfully in the large hall.
Effie watched Malcolm until he made eye contact and gave her a short nod. He stood and walked slowly to the exit. This was her chance. She stood, but Isabelle took her hand, preventing a quick escape.
“Let us bid farewell to our lovely ladies.” David rose to address the crowd. “Isabelle, my lovely wife, and Effie, my charming sister, will now retire. Yet they will return on the morrow to watch ye lads compete!”
Effie and Isabelle curtsied to the crowd as they cheered. Effie scanned the room, but she had lost sight of Malcolm. Isabelle began leading her through the overly friendly Highlanders wishing her pleasant dreams.
“Good night to ye,” said a familiar voice. It was Connor. “I wish ye pleasant dreams.”
It was a kind sentiment, but she wanted more than just pleasant dreams. “Good eve to ye, Sir Connor.” Effie curtsied and moved on. She wanted something more, something exciting, something like Sir Malcolm Douglas. Trouble was, Isabelle had linked arms and was mildly leading her out of the hall.
Effie met Malcolm’s eye, hoping he would understand. He gave her a grin and a shrug. He understood she had been caught. Effie smiled at her admirers and followed Isabelle’s lead up to her chamber. Her plans had been foiled, but there was always tomorrow night.
“Wake up, my lovely. You have a big day ahead of you.” Isabelle gave Effie a little nudge.
Effie snuggled further down in her bed and yawned. Isabelle’s firstborn made a happy screeching noise and Effie scrunched down further.
“Well, if you are not interested, I suppose I could always wear this myself.”
Effie peeked over the covers. Isabelle stood before her with her firstborn on her hip and a delicately crafted silver crown in her hand. It was a band of woven silver loosely plaited with tiny leaves engraved on the strands. “They say this was Maid Marian’s crown she wore when she wed Robin Hood.”
Effie sat up and raised an eyebrow. “And we have come by it how?”
“Remarkable, is it not?” Isabelle smiled back.
“It is beautiful,” admired Effie.
“Let us prepare you for the tournament, Maid Marian.” Isabelle handed the tot off to his nurse and ushered in two lady’s maids. They helped Effie into a pale blue silk gown with long, draping sleeves reminiscent of an earlier time. Her golden hair was plaited and decorated with flowers over which a gauzy veil and the delicate silver crown were added.
“Beautiful!” exclaimed Isabelle. “My work is quite excellent!”
Effie laughed. “Aye, ye are as clever as ye are modest.”
“No need to insult!” Isabelle laughed. “How are you liking your groom to be? He is a handsome man, is he not?”
Effie coughed at the sudden turn in conversation. “Aye, verra braw.” Though not as big and muscular as Malcolm, but she kept that observation to herself.
Isabelle nodded in approval. “I know you had some reservations about the man David had chosen for you, but I think now on seeing him there can be no complaint. Am I right, dear sister?” Isabelle’s gaze was unwavering, her mouth pinched in anxiety.
Effie smiled at Isabelle, her mind racing with what to say. She wanted to confess to Isabelle that she had arranged not to wed Sir Connor, but such a confession would only be related directly to her brother, and Effie was not ready to tell David. She must have a replacement first. Yet, she must say something to Isabelle, who clearly was concerned about Effie’s acceptance of Sir Connor—and for good reason.
“I can find no fault in Sir Connor Maclachlan. My brother has made a good choice,” said Effie. It was all true. But Connor was not her choice.
“Good.” Isabelle breathed a sigh. “I am pleased you approve of Sir Connor. He is a good man.”
“Aye, he is.” Effie was certain he would be a good husband for someone. The problem with Connor was not his character; the trouble was he wasn’t in love with her. Effie had given up trying to make anyone understand. She wanted more than just a good catch. She wanted love. Maid Marian would not settle for anything less, and neither would she.
“Come, then, let us watch the first contest. Archery! I wonder who shall emerge our Robin Hood today?” asked Isabelle with a smile.
Effie followed Isabelle to meet David and the other notable lairds and their entourage. They then proceeded with great pomp to the stands that had been erected for them to watch the contest. The stands were draped in colorful cloth of red, blue, and gold. Flags and banners flapped in the wind raised on poles so high the English could see them raised.
“The English must think us mad,” said Effie, sitting in a chair of honor beside Isabelle. The crowd cheered at the arrival of their Maid Marian.
“You are Scots. They already think you mad,” said Isabelle, waving to the crowd.
Effie stood and waved in a sweeping motion to make the most of her draping sleeves. “Good. We shall no’ disappoint them.”
“No chance of that,” muttered Isabelle.
“Welcome, my friends!” announced David, who stood next to Isabelle. “We are honored by the arrival of our Maid Marian.” Effie inclined her head in what she hoped was a regal manner and David continued, “In honor of Robin Hood, our first contest will be archery. May the best Robin win!”
The crowd erupted in cheers and Effie could only imagine what the English must be thinking. She doubted they were accustomed to being met with such levity. There were many archers, so they were arranged in groups of ten, all shooting at once. At first the targets were closer, then were moved progressively farther back.
Effie noted with pleasure that Connor won his group, while Malcolm won his as well. They were both excellent shots. The top two of each group were combined to form two groups. Connor won his round and Malcolm won his. Now the winners were put into one group and the target itself was moved back another twenty paces.
“This should be an interesting contest,” said Isabelle, leaning forward.
Connor was the first to shoot. He had been consistent all day. Yet as he was about to release his arrow, a child ran onto the field and Connor jerked his arm up to avoid the child, causing his bolt to fly high and wide.
“That is unfair!” cried Effie. “He should have another chance. He was only trying to save that wee one’s life.” But the contest continued.
“He shall have one more chance to shoot in the second round,” soothed Isabelle.
“Aye, but he would have to be perfect to win now,” protested Effie. She was surprised by her own strong reaction.
The other participants shot well, with Malcolm shooting last. He raised his arms to the crowd, eliciting cheers, and, Effie noted with some displeasure, shrieks from some young ladies in attendance. He may have winked at them, but she could not be sure.
The crowd hushed as he lined up his shot. He took aim and let loose, scoring well. Effie clapped appreciatively. Connor was now up to take the first shot of the second round. Effie leaned forward, waiting to see his shot. Connor aimed and shot, hitting in the exact center of the target. Effie could not help but smile.
The judges conferred and called back Connor, Malcolm, and two others to shoot a third and final time.
“Sir Connor still has a chance,” exclaimed Effie.
Isabelle shook her head. “He still is considerably behind in points. I doubt he can win even with a perfect score.”
There was some conferring on the field between Connor and the judges, and the target was moved back another fifty paces.
Effie smiled. “That should even the odds.”
“I am glad to see you are championing Sir Connor’s cause,” said Isabelle.
Effie frowned. She was hoping for Malcolm to win the tournament and the kiss. Wasn’t she?
This time Malcolm was the first to shoot. He took his time, considering the wind, aiming his shot. He released his arrow and it landed on the target, a good shot. Effie clapped for him. The other two contestants shot. One missed entirely and the other hit the target but was wide. Malcolm started to accept congratulations even as Connor stepped onto the field. It would take a perfect shot to overcome the deficit.
Effie leaned forward and held her breath when Connor went to shoot. His arrow flew true, a perfect score! Effie bounded to her feet and cheered along with the crowd.
Connor turned and caught her eye, giving her a bow. Sir Malcolm also caught her eye, an uncharacteristic frown on his face. She stopped cheering and sat down to compose herself. Malcolm turned to Connor. The two men soberly shook hands as the crowd dispersed to find a quick meal before the next competition—the sword.
“Ye were amazing,” said Effie as the clans walked back out to the field.
“Thank ye,” answered Connor. As her supposed betrothed, their families were spending time together over the midday meal, though her time had been completely taken with female conversation while the men stayed at the other end of the solar and talked about whatever men talk about.
“How do ye like yer chances wi’ the sword?” asked Effie as they emerged from the keep into the bright sunlight of a fresh spring day.
Several rather large Highlanders sauntered by. Connor shook his head. “I prefer a bow, I fear, but I shall try my utmost.”
“Good luck to ye. And careful not to hurt yerself.” She may not wish to wed him, but she certainly didn’t care to see him injured. The others were walking up to the viewing stands and Effie glanced around to see if Malcolm was by any chance in sight.
“Will ye by cheering for me this time I wonder?”
Effie spun to find Malcolm standing behind her. “Sir Malcolm! I wish ye the verra best.”
“Do ye now?” He glanced around and though there were many people around, Effie’s kin had all gone around to the stands and it appeared no one was watching. He grabbed her hand and pulled her through the drapes, under the grandstand.
“What do ye think ye are about?” cried Effie.
“Wheesht now! I missed ye last night, and I need a boon to help me win this time.” He snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her close.
“I shall scream and they will all come to rescue me!” declared Effie.
“Ye could. Or ye could kiss me instead.” His eyes sparkled and he wrapped his other arm around her and pressed her close to him.
Effie’s senses whirled. He was big and warm, and he smelled entirely of whiskey and man. She wrapped her arms around his neck, her eyes half open. She was intoxicated by his mere touch.
He kissed her, hard, his tongue demanding she open her lips. She did, tentatively, and his tongue thrust inside her mouth. It was invasive and wet, and not at all what she thought her first kiss would be like. She pulled back instinctually.
Malcolm laughed and released her. “Ye’ll get used to it, my pretty maid. First kiss, eh? At least ye started wi’ the best.” He pulled back the drapes and strode out from behind the stands.
Effie took a few deep breaths. Her first kiss. Her first glorious kiss with a man who loved her. She was not entirely certain about the experience, but it was without a doubt her first kiss. She smoothed her skirts, settling her nerves, and stepped out from behind the drape, right into Connor.
He frowned at her and her cheeks blazed with heat. “Are ye all right?” he asked.
“Aye.” She paused but could not think of any sensible excuse for why she should be standing behind the drapes under the stands.
“I saw Malcolm come out o’ here and I feared he had dragged off one of the serving wenches.”
Now her cheeks truly burned. “Nay I…I wished to speak to him in private.”
Connor folded his arms across his chest.
She leaned forward and whispered, “I think he may be the one for me.”
“I see.” His face did not lose the frown. Clearly he did not approve of her choice, but it was not his decision after all. “I should join the others.” He turned and stomped off to the field and Effie walked up to take her place by Isabelle on the stands.
“This should be an interesting contest,” said Isabelle, acknowledging the contestants, unaware of what had just transpired.
“Aye, it will be,” said Effie, noting that Connor and Malcolm were giving each other a look of death. “Good thing the swords are blunted,” she muttered.
“I do hope so,” agreed Isabelle. “I would hate to see anyone injured.
Yet Effie feared this was not a sentiment shared by Sir Malcolm or Sir Connor. She watched with interest as the sword fighting commenced, several fights taking place at one time with judges determining the winner of each match. She cheered as Sir Malcolm easily defeated his first match. He attacked with force, skill, and strength. She would not wish to oppose him.
When it was Connor’s turn to fight, she leaned forward with anticipation. He was well suited for archery, but he was not as broad as many of the Highlanders. He stepped into the circle with a certain amount of caution and Effie feared he would be defeated in the first round. Yet he was able to defend himself as the other man attacked.
Time and again his opponent charged, and Connor deflected until the other man was tired and winded, while Connor appeared much as he had at the beginning. Connor took his time, but his moves were quick and his reach was long thanks to his tall stature. When he attacked, it was quick and decisive. The judge gave him the nod; he was the winner.
Effie clapped for his win but stifled a cheer as she noted the eyes of Sir Malcolm upon her.
The day progressed until the final four men were called to battle for the champion of the sword. Sir Malcolm was a favorite, and Effie was not surprised he was there, but Connor also was among the top four, proving that patience, speed, and skill could also be a lethal combination.
The four men drew straws to determine which would face each other. Malcolm and Connor were to battle. The crowd hushed as the two matches began. Effie only had eyes for Malcolm and Connor.
“Be careful; he starts fast,” whispered Effie, though of course Connor could not hear her.
At the signal, Malcolm charged at a full run with a yell that would cause most men to wet themselves in terror. Connor held his ground and deflected quickly, yet Malcolm stabbed with a knife as he passed. Connor ducked but still walked away holding his shoulder.
“Is that allowed?” asked Effie, even as the judge stopped the match and spoke to Malcolm, making him put down the knife.
“It is not allowed, but since this is the first time he has used a knife, he will be given a warning,” said Isabelle. “Still, I cannot say it is the conduct becoming of a knight.”
“Aye,” said Effie, too focused on the fight to say more.
Malcolm charged; Connor deflected. Malcolm swung; Connor ducked. Yet Malcolm was not tiring and Connor would need to do something more than defend himself to win this match. Malcolm charged again, and Connor not only deflected but also swung low, knocking Malcolm off his feet. The crowd cheered, but Malcolm rolled and came up swinging, hitting Connor hard on the same arm he had knifed before.
Effie wished to boo with some of the crowd, but she stifled it. Connor stumbled to his feet, rolled, and got up fast to deflect an attack. Yet Malcolm was expecting it and parried, coming down hard on Connor’s blade. Even from a distance, Effie could see the pain on his face. Connor’s arm was injured, and Malcolm would use his opponent’s weakness to best advantage.
Malcolm and Connor circled each other. Malcolm was talking to Connor; she could see his mouth move, but could not hear what he was saying. Suddenly, Connor attacked, locking swords and punching Malcolm in the face. Malcolm stumbled back, but the swing of the blow had left Connor off-balance, and Malcolm parried with his sword to Connor’s neck.
The judge rushed in. Indeed, for a moment, Effie thought Malcolm might kill Connor, but in a flash the moment was gone, the contestants stepped back, and they bowed to each other and to the lairds and ladies in the stands. Effie clapped in relief that they had not done each other serious harm. The judge awarded Sir Malcolm the win.
Effie was utterly spent from the anxiety of watching the two men battle, but there was one more match to determine the winner. Both Malcolm and Connor won their next fight, so Malcolm was awarded the prize as the winner and Connor accepted third place.
Malcolm saluted her and gave her a courtly bow. She accepted it with a curtsy of her own. She was Maid Marian after all. Connor watched Malcolm then turned to gaze at her, his face unreadable.
At Isabelle’s insistence, Effie went back to her quarters to prepare for the feast and rest a bit before the festivities began once more. She lay on her pallet, too many thoughts racing through her mind to rest. She pondered the reactions of both Malcolm and Connor, and when that left her mind in a puzzle, she turned her attention to fretting over her sister Elyne and whether she was safe out there in the wilderness.
A ghillie brought her word that Lady Maclachlan wished for an audience. Effie groaned. Audibly. Much to the surprise of the ghillie.
“Sorry,” said Effie. “Indigestion. Tell Lady Maclachlan I shall be there shortly.” Though she would rather have done almost anything else.
The trouble with maintaining this charade until they both found spouses of their choosing was pretending a kinship with his mother. Lady Maclachlan was a kindly woman, one she did not wish to hurt.
Effie knocked on the door to Lady Maclachlan’s quarters and the unlatched door swung open. “Good day, Lady Maclachlan,” called Effie.
“Aye, come in, child.” Lady Maclachlan beckoned her into the large room, her voice coming from behind the gold and burgundy bed curtains.
“Lady Maclachlan?” Effie peeked into the curtains to find Lady Maclachlan attending to her son, who was lying on top of the bed. His shirt was removed and his upper right arm was wrapped in a bandage.
“Ah good, ye are here now, lassie. I knew ye would want to care for Connor yerself.” Lady Maclachlan gave her a smile that managed to be both mischievous and mothering. Connor, on the other hand, gave her a look that could sour milk.
“I dinna ken—” began Effie.
“Here now, take a seat on the bed.” Lady Maclachlan motioned beside Connor and Effie obligingly climbed up. “Be good now.” Lady Maclachlan grinned and shut the curtains, leaving Connor and Effie together on the bed with considerably more privacy than two unmarried people should ever have. Of course, everyone expected a wedding within days.
“Are ye hurt?” Effie asked tentatively.
“Nay,” Connor growled.
“Good,” said Effie. She tried not to look at him, but since he had turned his head away, she took the opportunity to admire his bare chest. He was a tall, lean man, with rippling muscles. Sir Connor was undeniably attractive, she was fair enough to admit it, but he was clearly in no mood to receive her. She paused a moment, waiting to see if he wished to speak, but he said nothing.
“I am sorry to trespass on yer privacy. I shall let ye rest.” Effie shifted to leave.
“Is that the man ye have chosen for yerself?” Connor’s eyes blazed into hers.
“Sir Malcolm?” Effie asked, wishing she could keep the heat from her cheeks.
“Aye. Is he to be yer man?”
“I…I am no’ certain my feelings. But I do wish to have a man who desires to be wi’ me.”
Connor folded his arms over his chest.
“Ye dinna approve.”
“No’ my place to say.”
“Ye’re right about that at least.” Effie folded her arms across her chest.
They sat in silence.
“I should get dressed,” said Connor and sat up, grimacing as he did.
“Ye are sore.”
“Aye, ye are, daft man. And I ken how to help ye. I have many brothers, many active brothers. My sister-in-law is a healer and makes a balm to soothe sore muscles. It is used often since I have so many.”
“Brothers! Ye wait here.” Effie bounded off the tall bed and ran out to find Isabelle. The jar of balm was quickly obtained, and she ran back with the prize, wondering for a moment why she should help Connor, who had decided to treat her with mute disapproval. Yet she recognized Malcolm had not played entirely fair by striking Connor with a knife, and somehow she felt she should make amends for this slight.
Effie strode into the room carrying the jar and entered the curtain, joining Connor on the bed. Her pulse pounded with the nervous thrill of traveling down forbidden paths, sitting on a bed utterly alone with a man she did not intend to take as her husband. She banished such inopportune thoughts from her mind.
“Here now, this will help.” She paused with a sudden realization. Was she truly going to massage this balm into his naked flesh?
Connor was having a miserable day. Unlike other young men, he did not relish spending his day being battered about at the lists. If his mother had won the argument, he would not have been allowed to train for war at all. It was not until his father pointed out to her that a lack of training would make Connor vulnerable that his mother had paid for expensive private tutors who trained him in the art of swordplay, emphasizing the defensive arts.
Men like Sir Malcolm, however, had been trained from birth in the art of causing as much pain and suffering to his fellow man as possible. Malcolm was a behemoth of a man. Walking onto the field, Connor had felt much like David facing Goliath. He was pleased to have held out against him for as long as he had.
It would have been better, strategically speaking, had he not punched the man in the nose. Doing so tilted him off balance and allowed the bastard to win. Yet the satisfaction of hitting the man was so great, he could not bring himself to regret it.
He was surprised at how easy it had been for Malcolm to goad him. At first Malcolm had started insulting his father and his clan. Connor ignored him. It was standard practice to attempt to raise the ire of your opponent by insult, thus baiting him into doing something stupid and losing the match.
Malcolm had then taken to insulting his mother. Connor again ignored it. His mother would not thank him for losing his head and getting hurt in the attempt to avenge her honor. It was not until Malcolm had insulted Effie, bragging at how he had taken her first kiss and insinuating he had taken more, that Connor, in an utterly uncharacteristic show of blind fury had attacked, punching the large man in the nose. The look of surprise and pain on Malcolm’s face was reward enough. Connor smiled a little with the remembrance of it.
Yet the truth of Malcolm’s taunts ruined any good humor that may have arisen from breaking his nose. Effie had made it painfully clear she had chosen Sir Malcolm Douglas of all men. Connor could not think of a man he liked less.
Connor shifted on the bed and groaned. He had only entered the games because Effie had suggested it. Fool that he was, he planned to win Effie’s affection through feats of skill in the tournament. Stupidity being its own reward, all he had to show for it was a cut on the arm and bruises up and down his body.
It would be simpler to let her go her own way. Yet he felt obligated to David Campbell. The man had given his sister to Connor’s care. Connor did not realize securing the marriage, one that was already arranged, would prove to be so difficult. Connor sighed. He knew he was acting on more than just obligation. There was something about Effie. The way she smiled, the purity of her heart, and yes, the way her body moved in a gown.
The door squeaked and he knew Effie had returned. He wished she would let him be. If she did not wish to wed him, so be it, but it was torture to lie on a bed so close to her and not wish for something more. And yet he was not about to send her away.
Effie appeared from the opening in the bed drapes and vaulted herself onto the bed. She was still wearing the silk gown that was laced tighter than he thought appropriate. Her beauty and her figure were astounding. He tried to blame being bashed about at the tournament for his light-headedness, but he feared it was her décolletage alone that made him see stars. She was glorious, but did not appear to be cognizant of this fact.
She held up a small jar. “Here now. This shall help.” She set the jar down and dipped two fingers into the balm. “Point to where it hurts.”
Where did he want her to rub those fingers? Oh no, he was not going to answer that. He had already been goaded into acting the fool enough for one day.
“Well, I can see a bruise here.” She scooted closer to him and pointed to a bruise on his arm above the bandage. She leaned over him to reach his arm, giving him a clear, wondrous look at her cleavage. He caught his breath.
“Sorry it might sting a little to begin but then it feels better.” She slowly, gently massaged it into his skin. The ointment did feel nice, providing some relief. Her fingers on his skin felt even better.
“Is it working?” she asked, her eyes a deep blue. A man could fall into those eyes and drown.
“Aye,” Connor grunted. He could say no more.
“Good. I see another bruise here.” She began to rub the ribs on the side of his chest. Her hair fell over her shoulder onto his naked stomach.
His body was responding to her in ways he hoped she did not notice. He was of a stoic nature, but she was tempting him beyond what he could bear. “’Tis enough. I thank ye.”
Effie turned to face him, a little crease between her eyebrows an indication she was displeased. “Surely, ye canna tell me ye are not aching.”
He was aching all right. But not in the way she meant. “I need to dress.” And she needed to leave him alone before he went mad. He sat up and unintentionally groaned. After multiple sword fights, his muscles were quite sore.
“Dinna be daft. I can see what ye’re about.”
Connor shifted his position. She could see?
“Ye dinna wish me to ken ye are hurting,” Effie continued. “Men and their foolish pride. Ye should’na be afraid to ask for help. Here now, I’m going to put some on yer arms and shoulders.” Effie grabbed the jar and crawled around behind him. Her fingers kneaded into the muscles of his back and shoulders, causing him to groan with pleasure.
“There now, I knew it would feel good.” Effie began to hum a happy tune.
Connor felt he had gone to heaven. The balm penetrated his aching muscles with a restorative tingle. Her fingers found all the places that were hurt and massaged away the pain. If he had been a cat, he would have purred. As it was, he was groaning like a man possessed.
When she was finished with him, he wanted to do nothing more than curl up with her in the bed.
“There now.” She crawled back around to see him. “Do ye feel better?”
Better? Much more than that. Connor put his hand over hers. “Marry me, Effie Campbell.”
Effie laughed, a happy sound. “I knew ye needed some salve for those muscles.”
“I am in earnest. Dinna find another man, marry me.” Connor had never been more serious.
Effie laughed again. “I see what ye are about. Ye want the salve for yer poor muscles. Here, I will let ye keep the jar.” She placed the jar in his hand.
“Thank ye,” he muttered as she jumped down from the large bed.
He got the jar. What he wanted was the girl.
Effie arrived at the feast looking fine and feeling shaken. Isabelle had made sure she looked the image of Maid Marian, complete with the silver crown. Her blond hair was plaited down her back and the sleeves of her silken gown almost dragged on the floor.
A cheer emerged from the crowd in homage to the Maid Marian when she entered, but Effie quickly scanned the crowd, looking for evidence of two men. One, Sir Malcolm, was cheering for her heartily. The other, Sir Connor, gazed at her intently.
Effie waved back at her admirers. She waved at Connor, but he hardly acknowledged her. She waved at Malcolm, who raised his glass and proposed a toast to the lovely Maid Marian. She wondered why Connor was so reserved. Even when she was doing something to help him, the man was prickly and distant.
She inhaled sharply at the thought of the time they shared on the bed. Even though it was clear he was utterly unaffected by her, she enjoyed rubbing the muscles of a man in perfect condition. It was a terrible shame, but she was attracted to a man who felt next to nothing for her. Oh, certainly he liked the balm that she brought. He had made that clear by asking her to marry him.
And why would he choose such words? The thought of marriage was beginning to be a painful reminder of her floundering attempts at finding love. She had left the jar and run away before she could do something foolish and take his words seriously. In that moment, with his intense eyes and his rippling muscles, she almost said she would marry him. What a mistake that would have been. Then he would have said he was only in jest and she would be left to cringe in embarrassment.
She sat at the head table beside Isabelle and watched without interest as the ghillies brought in the food.
“How go the negotiations with England?” Effie asked Isabelle.
“Oh, fine. No concerns.” Isabelle refused to look at her and instead helped herself to a generous amount of roasted mutton.
“If I ask again will ye tell me the truth, sister?”
“Negotiations take time,” Isabelle hedged. She took some roasted apples, a savory pie, and some bread.
“Ye are either trying to evade my questions or are eating for more than just yerself.”
Isabelle stopped and turned to Effie with a smile. “Yes, you are correct on both counts.”
Effie flung her arms around her sister-in-law and gave her a big hug. “I am so happy for ye.”
“Thank you.” Isabelle beamed. “We are pleased.”
“Wonderful! Now, how go the negotiations?”
Isabelle turned back to her meal. “Not well. Not yet. But I must have hope for a successful resolution to this problem.”
For if they did not find a solution soon, it would be war. She knew it; Isabelle knew it; every knight and lady in the hall knew it. It was a strange thing to feast and make merry with a wolf at the door.
If her brother was concerned, he took pains not to show it. The feast was second to none, even with the addition of many crofters, yeomen, and peasants who lived around the castle and fled within the gates when the English approached. The entertainment was also pleasing, a mix of jugglers and acrobats.
After a while, the feast proper began to wind down and the respectable ladies retired to their quarters. Isabelle took David’s arm and Effie stood to follow. As they left, David was waylaid into a conversation with Laird Douglas, and Isabelle was drawn into a conversation about the best way to reduce the sickness of early pregnancy, so Effie continued out of the hall alone.
“Maid Marian, m’lady!” called Malcolm’s low voice.
Effie turned and gave Sir Malcolm a wan smile. “Good evening, sir knight. Ye are to be congratulated on yer win at swords.”
Malcolm shrugged. “’Twas nothing. Come, I wish to talk wi’ ye.”
Effie shook her head. “My sister will be coming soon. If I am not in our solar when she arrives, she will raise the alarm.”
“For a moment then.” He reached for her hand and held it gently in his large warm one. “I canna stop thinking of ye.”
“Truly?” Effie allowed herself to be drawn into a side passage used mainly by servants. It was darker and more cramped, but she was curious regarding Malcolm’s intentions.
“Aye.” He leaned a shoulder against the stone wall and kept hold of her hand. “I winna lie to ye. I fear I have enjoyed the kisses o’ many a lass. But none like ye. Ye are special to me.”
Effie was surprised at his honesty—if he was being honest. “Why am I special to ye? Ye hardly know me at all.”
“But if ye meet yer true love, do ye not know it at once?” Malcolm’s voice was low and silky.
“Aye. My heart knows.” He stepped closer and lifted her hand to his muscular chest.
Effie smiled. He was trying hard to woo her and she appreciated the effort. This was what she was wanting—someone to care enough to say sweet things to win her heart. “But why this sudden declaration, sir knight?”
“Before today, I did not think I had any hope of securing a lasting union wi’ ye. But something Connor said gave me hope that I might win yer heart and yer hand in marriage.”
“What did Connor say?” It was curious that she was more interested in Connor’s words than the fact that Malcolm had just said he wanted to marry her.
“I understood ye to be promised to him. But his attack today at the games was not one of a confident man. Mayhap he is worrit for good reason, no? Mayhap ye kens he is no’ man enough for ye.”
Effie opened her mouth to protest. It was true she did not wish to wed Connor, but she would allow no aspersions to be cast on his manhood.
“Tell me I have reason to hope.” Malcolm drew her closer and whispered into her ear. “Tell me ye will be my wife.” He kissed her earlobe, sending tingly sensations down to her toes. She wrapped her arms around his neck. He leaned closer to kiss her.
“Oh! Sorry, m’lady.” A ghillie turned and walked back the way he came.
Effie jumped away from Malcolm.
“Come now, naught but a ghillie,” said Malcolm.
“Nay, I fear I have tarried too long. I must return to my sister.” Effie pulled herself away and hustled up to her clan’s solar. Malcolm had said everything she had been waiting to hear. He loved her. He wished to marry her. She was somewhat relieved that she had not been required to kiss him again, but pushing aside that confusing thought—she had done it!
Instead of going into the solar, Effie continued up the stone staircase to the tower. She needed to think. Besides, it was raining, and the cool wet air would be a relief after the heat of the hall. Effie lifted the trapdoor and was pelted by an angry deluge. It was raining a bit harder than she realized. She started back down the stairs.
“I did much the same thing.” Connor’s voice came floating up from below.
Effie walked down the spiral stair to where Connor leaned against the door to the quarters for the Maclachlan clan. “Too wet for ye?” she asked.
“Nay, I like the rain. ’Tis the need to breathe air that troubles me. If I went out tonight, I may well and truly drown.”
Effie smiled. She enjoyed Connor’s wry sense of humor. “Did ye no’ ken ye are supposed to keep yer head down in the rain, no’ look up to the sky.”
“Och, I knew I was doing something wrong all these years.” His eyes glinted in the torchlight. “What a shame I shall no’ benefit from yer further instruction as my wife.”
Effie caught her breath at the mention of the union that would not be, although why she could not say. She had merely done exactly what they both agreed to do. “I believe I have found someone.”
“Sir Malcolm.” Connor’s voice dropped.
“Aye. He has declared his love and says he wishes to wed me.”
“I am sure he does at that.”
“Truly? Has he shared his feelings wi’ ye?”
“Nay. But ye are well dowered.”
Silence fell in the dark tower. Even the flickering torches seemed to darken and still. A coldness shot through her.
“Aye. Thank ye for that reminder. Though I will say between the two o’ ye, he has never mentioned it.”
“Effie, I dinna mean—”
“I ken what ye mean, Sir Connor. Ye mean to say that Sir Malcolm is only interested in me for my dowry. Because, apparently to yer discerning eye, there can be no other possible motivation for his interest in me other than monetary benefit.”
“Nay, indeed I dinna mean to imply—”
Effie continued walking down the stairs. “Nay, o’ course ye dinna mean to say it.” She stopped directly before him. “But ye did say it.”
Connor looked stricken.
Effie continued to walk down the stairs.
“I apologize. My words were unkind.” His pained words floated down after her. She shooed them away.
Effie opened the door to her solar and slammed the door shut. His words stung more than she wished to admit. Now she knew she made the right decision. Connor clearly did not hold her in high regard. The mere thought put a lump in her throat. It was a good thing she did not care for what he thought of her.
She brushed away a tear with an impatient hand. She did not care for his good opinion. No, not in the least.
The next morning, Effie flung off the blankets and jumped out of bed, ready for the morn. Yesterday had ended poorly, but she was not of a brooding nature. The rain had stopped, the sun was out, and she was determined to make the most of it.
She was dressed much as she was the day before. She put on a clean linen chemise and kirtle and over that the silver-blue gown from a bygone era with the sweeping sleeves. Her blond hair was braided in two long plaits and the silver crown was placed on her head.
“Indeed, you look lovely,” said Isabelle. “We have never had such a charming Maid Marian.”
“Thank ye,” murmured Effie, distracted.
“And today shall be the big day for Marian, the day Robin Hood is crowned and she bestows on him a kiss.”
Effie’s head snapped up. “Och, aye.” She bit her lip and hoped she would enjoy this kiss more than she had her last.
A sudden yell of male voices drew their attention.
“What was that?” asked Isabelle.
“Are the lads preparing in the courtyard?” asked Effie. They both opened the shutter to look out the window. Yet nothing was out of the ordinary.
Another yell came from the distance, making them both pause.
“I am going to look from the tower,” said Effie.
“Keep your head down. Don’t be seen by either the English or your brother. You know how he feels about towers.”
“Aye. Heard it much too often.” Effie bounded up the stone stairs. David’s dislike of high places was legendary, yet in a cruel twist of fate, all his siblings enjoyed an elevated view, thus creating more than one difference of opinion on whether castle towers should be frequented or not.
Effie opened the wooden trapdoor on the tower. Connor was there. Crouched behind the battlements, looking out on the valley below. He turned and acknowledged her with a nod. Effie acknowledged him stiffly in return, her heart giving him a silent greeting with an extra beat.
Connor was not wearing his usual great plaid, as was common for Highlanders; instead, he wore a surcoat, padded hauberk, and breeches. She was surprised for a moment until she remembered today was the joust. The men would be wearing armor. She had never before considered how armor could improve the look of a man.
But it did.
Effie crept to him, careful to keep low so as not to be a target for the English bowmen. “Good morn to ye, Sir Connor.” She disliked the mixed emotions he swirled within her.
“Good morn to ye, Lady Euphemia.”
Effie scrunched her nose at hearing her formal name. The only time her family used that name was when she was in trouble. Another warrior’s yell sliced through the morning and Effie looked out through the battlements at the scene below.
“What is all that racket?” asked Effie.
“The English are doing some fool thing. They are arranged into formations and are marching around, yelling at each other.”
Hundreds of English soldiers had arranged into neat square formations and were marching down the valley, stopping at intervals and forming into a defensive position with a warrior’s yell, swords and pikes at the ready, looking like a very angry hedgehog. Despite Connor’s casual manner, if the English intended to impress, they had hit their mark.
“English are so verra odd,” said Effie lightly, not mentioning what they both were thinking. The English may be odd, but they were good fighters, so good the Scots had rarely met them in battle and emerged the victor. No one rushed into battle with England without serious contemplation. If the clans met them on the field of battle, it would end poorly for everyone.
“Campbell will secure terms wi’ the English. I doubt it will come to war,” said Connor as if he could read her mind.
“Aye, I must have hope, eh?”
“Aye. And I hope ye can forgive my thoughtless words last night.”
Effie slid her eyes to his but said nothing.
“I spoke o’ my fear ye would’na find a man worthy o’ ye. But if Malcolm has secured yer heart, then I wish ye both a long and a happy life.”
Effie searched his face, trying to determine if he was jesting with her, but his eyes were sincere. “Thank ye.”
He leaned toward her and Effie instinctively leaned closer as well. He stopped inches from her face. Effie’s pulse raced and her lips parted. For some inexplicable reason, she wanted to be closer to him, though with only inches separating them, she could not say where she wanted to go.
“Effie,” he whispered, his focus drawn to her eyes, then down to her lips.
“Aye,” she whispered in return.
“I…I…” He shook himself and leaned back. “I am glad it has stopped raining.”
Effie looked away, confused by what had just happened. “Aye, should be a goodly day for a joust.”
“Lots o’ mud.”
“Aye,” Effie said with a smile. “Perfect.”
The colorful banners of the clans flapped wildly in the wind. It was a sunny day but windy, and the mud was indeed present to add to the spectacle. The joust was a favorite with everyone, particularly the ladies. Many a knight could be found wooing a bonnie lass for a chance of securing a ribbon or handkerchief to tie to his lance for good luck.
As Maid Marian, Effie could not bestow a token, but she watched with interest the couples who now publicly expressed affection during this clan gathering. The main reason for all of this, at least to her mind, was to secure marriages, thus establishing continued goodwill between the clans.
Malcolm, she noted with interest, had not gone elsewhere for a token. But Connor, she noted with displeasure, had several ladies follow him wherever he went. Two bestowed favors upon him. He took both and put them within his hauberk.
“What are you frowning for, sister?” asked Isabelle. “Is something not to your liking?”
Effie sat straight next to her in the viewing stands. “Nay, everything is quite well. Should be a good day for a joust.”
“Yes, a lovely day indeed.” Isabelle beamed. Being with child agreed with her. Would this be Effie next year, carrying a man’s child, attending the May Day feast? Hope. It was a powerful thing.
The first riders lined up in the lists, each rider spurring his horses toward each other, a low barrier marking where the horse was to run. The armored knights charged toward each other, their long lances coming down and smashing into each other’s shields. Both lances shattered to the cheers of the crowd.
Shattered spears, knights knocked from their horses, the spectacle was everything the crowd could have wanted, and the large splat when a shining knight hit the muddy ground only increased the enjoyment. The crowd cheered especially loud whenever an unhorsed knight landed in a particularly deep puddle.
It was all good sport, but Effie could not help but take particular interest in Malcolm and Connor. In the preliminary rounds, Malcolm won both rounds, unhorsing his opponent. Connor, on the other hand, had clearly spent less time proving his worth with a lance. He lost his first round but won the second. She cheered for them both, trying to sort her feelings.
She planned to talk to her brother to ask if she might make a slight deviation to the marriage contract. David may be disappointed, but in the end there could be no objections. Malcolm came from a well-respected clan. Granted, he was not going to be laird, but still he was one fine man.
Malcolm strolled confidently through the crowd toward the back of the stands where he had kissed Effie yesterday. Did he wish to meet with her again?
A certain Maid Marian needed to meet her potential Robin Hood. So many questions swirled around her. She needed answers. She whispered to Isabelle that she needed a moment of privacy and stepped down from the stands. People were milling about and Effie paused, waiting to see if Malcolm would appear.
Giggling could be heard from under the drape of the grandstand and she stepped back, assuming another couple had found a moment of privacy under the drape. A giggling young maiden with a tilted veil stumbled out from behind the drape. She caught sight of Effie, curtsied quickly, and hustled off in the opposite direction.
A moment later a smug Malcolm appeared from the drape.
Effie’s heart sank. For a moment she could not move. The man who had promised just the night before to love and cherish her forever had been kissing and goodness only knows what else with another lass.
He caught sight of her and shouted her name, the smile drained from his face. She spun on her heel to run but stopped and turned around. She was a Campbell. And a Campbell never backed down from a fight.
“Enjoying yerself, ye snake!” she hissed at him.
“Effie, lassie, ye canna be upset about such a wee little thing,” cajoled Malcolm.
“Wee thing? She looked full grown to me!”
“If only ye had been more affectionate, I would’na have had to turn to another.” He drew close and spoke in a soft slippery voice. “I have a man’s needs that only ye can fill.”
“I accept responsibility for it then.” Effie nodded. “As I take responsibility for being a fool for ever speaking to ye. Dinna ever address me again.”
A crowd was beginning to notice this interchange so she stepped back and pasted a smile on her face. “I wish ye good luck in the joust, sir knight,” she said in a loud voice. She spun and walked purposely to the tower. When the door closed behind her and the curious eyes could no longer judge, she hitched up her skirts and ran up the tower stairs all the way to the top.
She pushed the trapdoor open and gulped the cool fresh air, impatiently brushing away her tears. He was not worth the pain. She realized she was not so much heartbroken over his loss as embarrassed for having been foolish enough to believe his lies.
She leaned on the battlements and looked out over the valley below. Hundreds of English soldiers were camped below. Soon they may be at war. Her sister was somewhere in the wild with a strange man. She took a deep breath. Her troubles were nothing compared to the true worries of this world.
“Get down!” Connor ran from the trapdoor, grabbed her, and pulled her down behind the battlements.
“What are ye doing, ye daft man?” Effie was pulled into Connor’s lap as they both landed hard on the stone floor of the tower.
“Ye should no’ be standing where an English archer could see ye and mistake ye for a target.”
“Ye should’na sneak up on ladies and wrestle them to the ground. What is wrong wi’ ye men? Besides, I doubt any arrow could strike this far tower.”
“I dinna wish to take chances.” He wrapped his arms around her in a protective manner. “Are ye all right?”
Effie stilled. She knew he was speaking of what happened in the courtyard. “Ye saw.”
“Did others see?”
Connor shrugged, so she assumed it was affirmative.
Effie sighed. “I have been a fool. An utter fool. Ye were right no’ to like him.”
“Mayhap I was jealous,” offered Connor. It was a lie but kindly meant.
“Nay, he has naught for ye to envy.” She sighed again and relaxed into him. She should not be sitting in the lap of a man, but it was comforting to have him so close.
“I thank ye.” Connor’s voice was soft. His silver eyes gleamed, giving him an otherworldly aura. His hands gently stroked her back.
Effie leaned closer. If kissing was not so repellent to her, she might have wanted to kiss him now. He smelled nice. He was nice. Here she was, trying to find the perfect man, when she had landed, literally, on a perfectly decent one.
“Have ye found yerself a lady?” asked Effie.
“Aye,” answered Connor.
For the second time that afternoon, Effie’s heart sank. “Anyone I know?” She pulled back and kept her voice light.
Connor shrugged in a noncommittal way.
“I wish ye all the best, I truly do.” Effie smiled. The sentiment was true; the smile was not. “I should get back to the stands before they send someone to see if I have fallen ill.”
“Aye.” Connor helped her to her feet yet motioned for her to keep her head down until they made their way off of the tower.
Effie kept the smile on her face until it started to hurt. When they reached the door to the courtyard, she stopped and put her hand on Connor’s sleeve. “I have no right to ask this, but I should be grateful if ye would unhorse Sir Malcolm.”
“Ye wish to see his arse in the mud?” Connor smiled, his strange eyes glinting.
“Aye, I confess I do.” Effie held herself as straight as a lance. “For if I am forced to kiss him again, I fear I may lose my supper.”
Connor nodded and swept her a courtly bow. “I will do my utmost, m’lady.”
It would certainly take something spectacular for Connor to win. He was down in points, so he needed to do more than just shatter a lance; he needed to rip those knights from their saddles and send them flying into the mud. Was Connor the man to do it?
How in the world had he allowed Effie Campbell to get him into this mess? Connor had asked himself that question many times. Though if he was fair, it was hardly her fault. It was he who wanted, in a strange moment of masculine pride, for Effie to see him as a rival to the supremely muscular and martially talented Sir Malcolm.
So to try to impress her, he had been pummeled by some of the best swordsmen in the Highlands; he still ached from the day before in case anyone cared to know, and now he was going to get himself stabbed by lances and most likely thrown into the mud. So far, the only lasses he had attracted were some ladies of dubious sobriety.
And he blamed Effie.
“Hope she’s worth it,” muttered his squire as the man fastened on the harness, the extra padding, and armor, which would hopefully keep him from dying on the field.
“Who’s that?” asked Connor, as if he did not know.
“Yer love. Maid Marian. The lass ye’ve been staring at wi’out fail for the past two days.” His squire pulled the harness tight and tied on plates to protect his shoulders and arms.
“The lass ye were supposed to wed but then was making eyes at Sir Malcolm.”
Connor glared at him.
“The lass that wished Sir Malcolm to blazes not an hour ago.”
“Ye see too much,” growled Connor.
“Been locked in this castle wi’ not much else to do, haven’t we? Me and the lads have been taking bets.”
“How are my odds?”
The squire looked down and pretended to focus on Connor’s boots. “Better now. But then, they were no’ much good at the start.”
“Did ye bet for or against me?” asked Connor.
The squire did not look up. “Sorry, m’lord. Ye ken I’m a drinking man. Canna afford a loss.”
His own squire had bet against him. Most depressing. “Yer confidence in me gives such encouragement.”
“Aw now, dinna take offense. I do have a thought for ye if ye are interested.”
“If ye have an idea o’ how I can win against this lot, I’m listening.”
“Come wi’ me.” His squire led him out of the tent and to the side of the courtyard. He entered the stables and went far to the back. “I have a horse for ye.”
“I have a horse.” Connor’s mount was a fine animal, impeccably trained.
“No’ like this one.”
Something behind the wooden stable door snorted and pawed against the wood. Unlike the other stalls, this had a thick wooden door with a small hole at the top. It was at the end and larger too. No doubt a place for difficult animals. Connor looked in and instantly the tall horse shrieked and pawed the ground.
“Ye brought Grendel with us?” Connor was shocked. They had acquired the huge black stallion from a neighboring clan who called him a demon, reporting that he was unable to be ridden and had injured several riders. So far they had little success in riding him either.
“Aye. Think on it. He is bigger and stronger and faster than any horse out there.”
“I dinna doubt it. But he is more likely to kill me than my opponent.”
“Ye always had a way wi’ the animals, sir. Mayhap ye could gentle him enough to ride in the joust?”
The horse in question snorted again and pawed the ground as if the mere presence of the men by his stall was an insult.
“Ye ken I can tame this wild demon none have been able to ride enough to get him to ride a joust?” Connor glanced at the squire. Had the man taken leave of his senses?
“Aye, but dinna gentle him too much; ye want him to intimidate yer opponent.”
“I fear the only one intimidated is me.”
His squire shrugged. “’Tis yer decision.”
“Is there a pen free?”
“Aye, old one back yonder.”
Connor shook his head. “No doubt I’ll regret it, but bring him in and we shall see if he wants to play today.”
“Ye have little time,” warned his squire.
Connor knew that. He also knew he had no time to change out of his armor, so he would have to train him as he was. It took six stable hands to move Grendel to the back pen.
“Give me a moment wi’ him.” Connor climbed up to go over the fence and into the pen, but his squire grabbed his arm.
“Dinna go in alone. Have some o’ the stable lads hold him back, for he is a demon beast. Let us bind one o’ his back legs up and we’ll whip him into submission.”
Connor shook his head. “If I am to ride this beast, I need to gain his respect.” Connor jumped into the pen and immediately the horse charged. Connor deflected and swatted him on the rear with a rope to get him to run. Connor continued to challenge the horse and Grendel charged around the ring like a beast insane. Connor could understand why they had named him after a demon. He needed the horse to tire for a moment in order to establish trust, but Grendel did not appear to be the tiring sort.
He was running out of time.
“They have started up the joust!” shouted his squire.
Connor could hear that. And so could the horse. “How soon until I am to joust?”
“Two jousts and then ye.”
Not enough time. Was Effie worth the risk? Grendel slowed down and licked his lips. Connor knew this would be his only chance. Slowly, he moved toward Grendel, keeping his head low and his shoulder to him. He might look like he was ignoring the horse, but he was getting a little closer until the horse walked toward him and Connor slowly raised his hand to stroke the silky nose.
A cheer from the crowd spooked the horse, and he jumped up and ran again.
The herald called for Sir Connor Maclachlan and Effie slid to the edge of her seat in anticipation. There were experienced riders here and Effie feared he was out of his league. Connor may be great at many things, but she doubted jousting was one of them.
The other rider was in the starting position, but there was no sign of Connor. The crowd stilled. Would Sir Connor forfeit the joust?
Several shrieks and a commotion stirred the crowd, and suddenly Connor was dashing down the field on the fastest horse she had ever seen. The other jouster leaped forward, but Connor lowered his lance and blasted the other rider from his horse. Connor also was rocked back, but managed to remain in the saddle.
He was not, however, able to stop the horse at the end of the course, and instead, he and the large horse jumped a rail and were gone.
It took a moment before the stunned crowd began to cheer.
“What was Connor riding?” asked Effie when the shock had worn off sufficiently to find speech.
“If he is astride Grendel, the demon horse, then he is a braver man than I,” said David, shaking his head.
“Demon horse?” asked Effie. She had asked Connor to win, but she hoped he would not injure himself.
Another joust ensued and then Sir Connor was again called by the herald to take his mark. This time the crowd whispered in anticipation and cheered when he vaulted over the rail and raced for his opponent. The other horse stopped in fear and reared up, unhorsing the rider without Connor ever lowering his lance.
Once again Connor and the demon horse refused to stop at the end of the list and jumped over the rail and kept going despite multiple grooms attempting to stop the beast.
The herald walked to the tree of shields, where the colorful shields of the opponent knights were hung and the winning shield moved up the tree. Two shields were moved higher. It was down to Connor and Malcolm.
Effie knew it would come to this. She knew it. The crowd must have been wise to their secret animosity because they cheered wildly. A joust was more fun when the opponents wanted to kill each other.
Malcolm prepared himself in the lists. He would not be easily taken down or easily beat. The judge gave the signal that the joust could commence, and Malcolm spurred his horse and galloped down the list.
“What is he doing? Connor isna even there yet.” Effie leaned forward to see.
“If he reaches the other side and Connor is not there, then Connor is a forfeit. Malcolm would win,” said Isabelle, leaning forward herself.
“That’s unfair,” cried Effie.
The crowd agreed with her and began to boo. In a flash, Connor burst into the lists before Malcolm reached the other side. Malcolm was ready and struck Connor squarely on his shield. Connor did not even have time to lower his lance.
The horse once again ran through the lists and out the other side. Could he get his mount back in position in time?
“Careful of your gown,” chastised Isabelle.
Effie realized she was clutching her skirts. She let go and smoothed the fabric, but a moment later she was on her feet screaming at the stable lads to get Grendel back into the lists. “Grab his head! Dinna let him go!”
But the horse did go, up and over the rails. Connor stood up in the stirrups and pulled hard. The horse reared up and spun, nearly sending him to the ground. Connor held on and regained control of the animal.
“Mighty fine riding,” commented David. “I’ve rarely seen the like.”
Effie could only agree. She leaned on the railing of the stands and cheered him on, all thoughts of being the neutral Maid Marian forgotten.
Connor spurred him on and the beast sped down the list like one possessed. Malcolm sped toward him with more control. With a clash they passed each other. Connor missed, but Malcolm struck Connor’s thigh.
“Did he get him?” asked Effie.
“Nay, they both missed the shields, so no points will be awarded,” said David.
“But Malcolm struck Connor’s thigh. I saw it. Was it purposeful?” Effie asked.
David shook his head. “Hard to say. Could be Malcolm is trying to gain an advantage by wounding him. Also could be ’tis hard to aim when riding on a horse and holding a heavy lance.”
It could have been accidental, but Effie doubted it. Once again Connor had difficulty turning his beast and Effie shouted her advice and encouragement, not that it could be heard over the hundreds of others cheering around her.
Malcolm turned and raced down the list, once again trying to force a forfeit.
“Bastard!” Effie yelled at Malcolm. “Turn him, turn him,” she screamed at Connor.
Connor stood in the stirrups again and pulled back. The horse reared, jumped, and spun.
“Hurry, hurry,” screamed Effie. “He’s almost to the end.”
Connor’s mount flew over the rail and Connor lowered his lance in midair, catching Malcolm squarely on his shield. The lance shattered and Malcolm flew from the saddle, landing on his backside, splat, in the mud.
Effie shouted for joy even as the crowd erupted with cheers. “Stay on, stay on!” she screamed as Connor rocked from the impact and flew back on his mount.
Connor struggled up, reined in his mount, turned in a circle, and then stopped, finally, in the middle of the field. Effie shouted for joy, her yells drowned out by the cheers of the crowd, including Isabelle and David, who were cheering as loudly as anyone.
Stable hands surrounded the horse, managed to get Connor off the monster, and took the exhausted animal back to the stables. Connor removed his helm and raised a hand to the crowd as they cheered.
“My friends,” shouted David in a booming voice. He was forced to repeat himself several times before the crowd quieted. “We have seen a spectacle the likes of which I doubt we shall ever see again. I hereby name winner of the joust and the winner of the Robin Hood challenge as Sir Connor Maclachlan!”
The crowd cheered again and Connor waved and acknowledged their praise.
“And now,” called David in a voice that left no doubt that he was laird of the Campbells, “let Sir Connor come forth to be presented with his prize.” David held the golden shield.
Effie stood too. As Maid Marian, it was her honor to bestow the winner with a kiss.
“Kiss, kiss, kiss,” the crowd began chanting.
Effie smiled in anticipation. Although she disliked her one experience with kissing, she was more than willing to try it again.
Unfortunately, she was not the only lass who had this sentiment. Several young ladies, including the two who had given him their tokens, ran up to him. One threw her arms around him. The other was even bolder and grabbed his face with both hands and kissed him on the lips. The crowd cheered again.
Effie did not. She sat back down and smoothed her skirts. One of those attractive lasses would no doubt be the next Lady Maclachlan. A title she would never have.
He walked forward to the stands, a rare smile on his face. He must have enjoyed his kisses. She looked away. Men were all alike, she supposed, though at least this one had the decency to tell her he had found another.
A roar from the other side of the castle wall and the crowd quieted to hear what was happening.
“The English!” shouted a sentry from the castle wall. “They are moving forward, maybe an attack!”
The mood in the courtyard dropped as if a sudden ice storm had frozen the cheer on people’s lips. Men ran to the battlements; women ran inside the keep.
“Take up yer positions, everyone!” shouted David.
Effie nodded to her brother and grabbed Isabelle’s hand to help her into the castle. “Come, ladies; come, children!” she called and led the women and children into the relative safety of the keep. Her heart pounded. Was it to be war?
Effie saw Isabelle inside then ran out to help bring in others, such as the elderly who may have difficulty moving quickly in such a crowd. Effie called for the musicians to come and play to provide some comfort during a difficult time.
It was not long before Laird Campbell rejoined them. “’Tis well, my friends. The English were in training determined to try to put the fear in us, but we will ne’er be cowed or defeated! Join us for the feast tonight and we will award Sir Connor with all that is his due!”
The women cheered the proclamation. They had escaped war for one more day at least.
Effie sighed. Connor’s moment of triumph had been robbed by the cursed English. And Connor’s women had robbed her of her kiss and her man.
Lady Maclachlan did not have to call for Effie this time. Effie knocked and was greeted by a smiling Lady Maclachlan, who stepped out of the sleeping quarters without a word, leaving Effie alone with Connor.
He stood in the middle of the room. His armor had been removed, but otherwise he was still in his dirty clothes, his face splattered with mud. His expression was unreadable, and Effie had no idea whether or not he was happy to see her.
Despite his choice of another bride, Effie had felt she needed to come to thank him and to help him. She had asked him to put Malcolm in the dirt, and he had risked his life on a crazed horse to oblige her. The least she could do was show her appreciation.
“Ye were amazing. I canna tell ye how pleased I am that ye won,” said Effie.
Connor grunted in reply. “I hope ye enjoyed the spectacle.”
“Ye were remarkable. I kept fearing ye would be bucked off.”
“I shared yer fears.”
“What a mount to choose. I have never seen the like.” Effie stepped closer. Though Connor had never looked worse, she had never seen him so handsome.
“He is named after the demon Grendel and shares a similar disposition.”
“Perhaps they ought to have named him Rainbow Kitten instead.”
One side of Connor’s mouth twitched up. “I fear it would hardly improve his demeanor.”
“Perhaps not, but the image of Malcolm sitting in the mud will be amusement for me for a long time to come.”
Connor could not help a small smile from showing on his face. “Aye. ’Twas the best part o’ the day.”
“But I hope to make it better.” Effie held up the jar of salve.
Connor sighed. “Aye, that is welcome. But now I must bathe and change for the feast tonight.”
He was attempting to be rid of her, but she would not leave quite so easily. “I shall help.”
“Dinna need help.” He attempted to remove his surcoat but winced with the effort.
“Are ye hurt?” Effie ran to him and began feeling his arms, looking for possible wounds.
“Nay, only tired.”
“We shall see.” Effie began to untie his surcoat.
“What do ye think ye are doing?”
“Undressing ye. And dinna think o’ stopping me. ’Tis the least I can do after all ye have done for me.” She was determined to help and had no interest in leaving the room. Effie let the surcoat drop to the ground.
“I can do it myself,” Connor grumbled, but softly so as not to actually get her to stop.
Effie smiled. “Aye, but then I could’na see where ye are injured.” She helped him remove his padded hauberk and his shirt. Her smiled faded as he stood before her, naked from the waist up. He was so handsome it took her a few moments of gawking before she remembered she was supposed to be looking for injuries.
“Are ye hurt anywhere?” she asked quickly.
Connor shrugged then winced.
“He got ye in the shoulder.” Effie could see a purple bruise beginning to form. “Here sit.” She pointed to a stool next to a bucket. “I see they brought up hot water for you.”
Connor obliged her and sat on the stool. Effie took a cloth, dunked it in hot water, and began to wash him. First she touched his face; she gently wiped away the dirt. He closed his eyes and she could appreciate his face without him seeing her stare.
He was a handsome man; there could be no denying. His nose was straight, his cheekbones high, and his eyes, when open, were the oddest shade of silver gray.
He opened those eyes, meeting hers with his intense gaze. Effie swallowed on a dry throat and reached into the bucket for fresh water. She placed the wet cloth on his shoulder and squeezed. The water ran down in rivulets, forming wet trails down his toned chest and over the rippling muscles of his stomach.
Effie had a sudden compulsion to lick off the water. She shook her head and got more water, hoping to wash away such shocking thoughts. What was wrong with her?
She grabbed the balm and began to massage it into sore muscles and more gently into bruises. A low groan escaped from Connor. He might pretend distance, but he was not immune to her ministrations. On the contrary, he appeared to be surrendering to the sensations she was arousing.
Desire slinked through her, so stealthily she almost did not recognize it at first. This was the man who made her heart beat fast. This was the man who made her tingle in strange places. This was the man she could have married, but now she had gone and ruined it. He had, at her urging no less, found another lass to wed.
Effie took a deep breath and let it out slowly, careful to remain behind him so he could not see her fight back the tears that had sprung to her eyes. She finally found the man she was looking for and it was too late. She was a fool.
She snuck another good look at him and was startled by what she saw. “Connor. Ye are bleeding!” A red patch on the breeches over his right thigh grabbed her attention.
“Malcolm caught my thigh in one of the rounds.”
“Bastard!” muttered Effie. “I was such a fool. How could I ever have fancied myself in love with Sir Malcolm?”
“He can be charming when he chooses to be,” Connor admitted reluctantly.
“I do apologize if ye have been hurt on my account. I confess I did enjoy ye tossing him on the ground, but I dinna wish ye to be injured.”
“I would do anything ye asked.” Connor’s eyes were open and true. “I also enjoyed throwing him in the mud. Most likely more than I should have, if I was a charitable man.”
“I would no’ change yer character in the slightest.” She met his eyes.
He attempted to stand, but winced and sat back down on the stool.
“I fear I must ask ye to shed yer breeches so I can bind yer wound,” said Effie, trying to keep her voice calm despite her rapid heart rate. The wound needed to be dressed, but her interest was so much more than healing.
“Ye are wearing short clothes, no?” Her voice wavered.
Connor nodded slowly.
“Would ye prefer yer mother?”
Conner shook his head and stood, slowly removing his breeches. Effie’s heart pounded. He stood before her in nothing but his short clothes. How she could have ever had her head turned by Malcolm was beyond her. The epitome of the perfect man was standing before her.
Effie steeled herself against treacherous thoughts. She had thrown away her chance with Connor. He had chosen another. Now she was here to help him, not ogle him. Though the latter was proving difficult to avoid.
She needed to be more like her sister-in-law, who was a known healer. She had taught the Campbell sisters a bit about healing, enough to clean and bind a wound, and that is where Effie needed to keep her focus.
“’Tis no’ too bad. Truly small. I’ve seen much bigger,” said Effie, trying to reassure the patient.
Instead of reassured, Connor looked stricken. “I do hope ye are referring to the cut.”
“Aye, what else…” Effie realized what he was talking about. And then she could not help but stare at him there. And then her face burned like fire. “Well…well then.” She turned away with a cough. “I should get some water.”
She hustled to the bucket and had a sudden compulsion to dunk her own head in it to cool down. She took a calming breath, grabbed the wet cloth and some bandages, and returned to the man of her desire.
He was stunning, his muscles taut and defined. He was tall and trim and oh so attractive. She pushed the thoughts aside and focused on the cut on his thigh. It did look painful. There was nothing like an oozing wound to get one’s mind back onto the task at hand.
“Sit down again and I will do what I can,” Effie said with cool detachment. She could only hope he would not realize her pounding pulse had nothing to do with dressing the wound.
Connor sat without a word.
The cut was a gash about three inches long. Effie began to wash it as gently as she could, but though he said nothing, she knew she was hurting him.
“Do ye have any whiskey?” asked Effie.
“Aye,” said Connor. Of course he did. He was a Scot after all. He pointed to a chest and she quickly retrieved it.
Effie handed the flask to Connor and he took a liberal swig. She took it back and hesitated. He was not going to like this. “Lady Campbell has a theory about how to clean wounds.”
Connor frowned. “How?”
“With this.” Effie poured some of the whiskey into the cut.
“Son of a—!” Connor hollered and jumped up.
“I am sorry!” cried Effie. “Isabelle told me about it when she first met David. He was gored by a wild boar, and she tended his wound with whiskey. Though now that I recall the story, I’m no’ sure if she used the whiskey because she did not have water or because the whiskey was good for a cut.”
“Whiskey is no’ good for a cut!” Connor was adamant on this point.
“Isabelle is a much better healer. Would ye like me to call her?”
“Nay, I pray ye would’na call yer brother’s wife to tend to me whilst I am almost naked.”
“Fine! I was only trying to help.” Effie had always thought Isabelle’s story of how she helped David was quite romantic. The reality of the angry Highlander before her was not at all what she had pictured.
Connor folded his arms over his naked chest. Heaven help her but she could not help but be attracted to this man. He was everything she wanted. Why could she not have figured this out a few days ago?
“I ken ye are trying to help,” muttered Connor.
“Sit down and I shall finish then. All I have to do is bind it. I dinna think it needs stitching.”
Connor sat down, his eyebrows clamped down in a suspicious manner. “No whiskey. No stitching either.”
“Fine.” Effie kneeled beside him to place the bandage. She took a long strip of linen and began to wind it around his thigh. Despite her frustrations with this man, the intimacy of what she was doing was not lost on her. She tried to focus on what she was doing, but she glanced up and their eyes met.
His mouth was slightly open, and she realized her position kneeling before him could be misconstrued by anyone who happened to walk in. More than that, while she could claim no familiarity regarding the male anatomy, she knew enough to suggest that her patient at least felt well enough to show her some decided interest.
Effie tied the bandage and jumped to her feet. “Well now! Ye should be healed soon, I warrant.”
“Aye.” Connor’s voice was raspy. “I ought to dress for the feast.”
“Do ye wish for help?”
“Nay!” Connor cleared his throat and tried again. “I thank ye for all yer help, but I shall don the plaid tonight.”
Which meant he would lose the short clothes.
“Verra well then.” Effie gave him a curtsy. “I should take my leave.” She turned to leave but circled back. “About our engagement. Ye ken my attempt to find another has failed, yet I suspect ye have found a true love.” Effie needed to know the truth.
Connor stood slowly. “Aye. My heart has been claimed.”
Effie bit her lip and turned away, busying herself with tidying the washing cloths. “Verra good. I am glad for ye. I will speak wi’ David, and he can dissolve any arrangement between us.”
Connor took her hands and got her attention. “Have ye found yer true love?”
Effie gazed up into his silver eyes. “Aye, I have.” Effie blinked away emotion. “But tell me now, who is the lass who has stolen yer heart?”
“Good eve to ye, children.” Lady Maclachlan came bustling into the room. She gave them a wide smile at finding them holding hands. “I do apologize for the interruption, but ye must get dressed for the feast.”
Effie stepped back and swept Connor a deep curtsy. “Maid Marian awaits yer presence at the feast.”
“Sir Robin is honored beyond words.”
Effie fled the room.
Effie’s attempts to calm herself before the feast were all in vain. She sat in her place of honor beside Lady Campbell, her foot tapping on the floor under the table. Isabelle was also looking concerned. David had gone to negotiate with the English and had not yet returned.
He would be well. The negotiations would come to a peaceful resolution, Effie told herself. Hope. She must hold on to hope. Please, Lord, let there be hope.
She knew the moment Connor Maclachlan walked in the door. He was dressed in his tartan, the great kilt, wrapped around his waist and thrown over his shoulder. He wore the thick shirt of a Highlander and a large pin with a family crest was at his shoulder. If she thought seeing him in armor was impressive, this was more so. She had to hold her own hands together under the table to keep from cheering his entrance. He was all she could ever want: tall, handsome, smart, and kind. And the latter, she realized too late, was more important than all the rest.
The guests were beginning to note the absence of Laird Campbell. Tension filled the great hall. What would tomorrow bring? Would they continue the tournament or be at war?
“My lords and ladies,” called Isabelle, stepping in David’s place to begin the festivities. “It has been a momentous day for the tournament! Come, join the feast!”
Platters of food emerged, momentarily distracting people from the fact that Laird Campbell was absent.
“Where is David?” Effie asked.
“He shall come soon,” said Isabelle, but she could not hide the worry in her eyes.
Effie’s toe continued to tap and not even the arrival of savory meat pies, a whole roasted boar, roasted vegetables, whole cooked apples, and many other tasty temptations could divert her concern.
The whiskey flowed, the musicians played, but still David did not appear. Second and third courses were served, but still no David. Effie’s nerves made her tap the toe increasingly faster. Isabelle was wrenching the tablecloth into knots under the table.
Effie glanced at Connor, but his face was calm. He mouthed a word to her: hope. Effie took a deep breath and smiled. He understood. He knew what to say to help her be at ease.
Effie prayed and held on to hope.
Half the evening was gone before David Campbell returned. His presence was noted quickly and everyone in the hall silenced, waiting to hear what he would say.
Laird Campbell ascended to the high table and stood before his seat to address the gathered clans in the hall. “Lairds, ladies, clansmen, and welcome guests, I bring tidings of our dealings with the English lords who camp at our doorstep.”
The hall was so quiet Effie could hear the rain start to fall outside again. Even the servants were silent, gathered at the edges of the hall, waiting to hear their fate.
“I bring good news! We have come to terms acceptable and the English will purchase back this castle for the kinsman of my lady wife. We must, however, leave on the morrow and not tarry any longer on English soil. I, for one, will be glad to rejoin my family back in the Highlands. This lowland air is no’ for me.”
The assembly cheered. Isabelle gave a sigh of relief. Effie felt lighter, happier, and her eyes traveled to the first person with whom she wanted to share the moment. Connor. He gave her a true smile and she returned it.
“And now, we must finish awarding the winner of the tournament, our Robin Hood, Sir Connor Maclachlan.” David’s voice boomed through the hall and the clans cheered.
Connor stood and strode to the high table. He climbed the dais and joined David and Effie, who stood to bestow on him her boon.
“No man has worked harder nor more richly deserves this honor,” said David. “I canna recall a joust when I was more afeared o’ the horse than the lance.” The crowd laughed.
“Sir Connor,” David continued. “Ye have certainly proven yer courage, yer skill, and yer lack o’ good sense in choosing a mount. I am proud to give ye this golden shield as the winner of the tournament, and I am proud to have ye as my brother when ye wed a certain Maid Marian.” David motioned to Effie.
Connor smiled at her. Effie took a deep breath. It was time to bestow her boon. But who was the lady who had stolen his heart?
“Sir Connor.” Effie stepped boldly to him before the gathered assembly. “I bestow this boon upon ye as the winner of the tournament.” She stood on tiptoe and chastely kissed one cheek. When she went to kiss the other cheek, Connor took the opportunity to lean forward and whisper in her ear.
“It is ye,” he whispered.
“Me? Me what?” she asked.
“It is ye who have stolen my heart.” Connor swept her into his embrace and kissed her on the lips. As if from a distance, she could hear the crowd erupt into cheers and then all noise faded away except the pounding of her heart. It was her. He was in love with her.
Effie wrapped her arms around his neck and melted into him as he deepened the kiss. It was…wonderful.
“Oh!” cried Effie when he finally allowed her to breath once more. “I like kissing!” And then she blushed for having said so out loud.
“To the chapel!” cried David. “This union must be sealed before another night is through!”
She was rushed out of the hall to the chapel, holding the hand of Connor on one side and Connor’s mother on the other. Lady Maclachlan shed tears of joy, wiped them away with her handkerchief, and shed some more.
David brought the marriage contract and the priest was called from his whiskey to conduct the ceremony. Within minutes, the unruly party, consisting mostly of the Campbell and Maclachlan clans, were seated in the chapel, ready for the wedding.
David unrolled the contract, which Connor signed. He handed the quill to Effie who paused. This was all going so fast; she needed to make sure she was ready. She tried to still the thoughts swirling in her head. The chapel grew silent. Everyone waited to see what Effie would do.
“I swore that I would not marry only to please my family, but that I would find a man I truly loved,” announced Effie. A few ladies in the chapel gasped. “After witnessing the love I see shared by my brother David and his wife, how could I settle for anything less than true love?”
The guests were silent, not sure what she was saying.
“We agreed to find people to wed for whom we have true affection,” Effie reminded Connor. He nodded slowly in agreement. “So I want ye to know, I want ye all to know, that Connor Maclachlan, I do love ye.”
Connor smiled broadly. “I love ye too.”
Their families cheered and David breathed a sigh of relief. The rest of the ceremony was a bit of a blur. The priest spoke; she answered some vows, as did Connor. Effie was too busy gazing longingly into his eyes to pay much attention to anything else. The Lord had answered her prayers in the way she least expected.
At the end of the ceremony, the priest spoke over them a blessing, which as long as Effie lived she would never forget.
“And now a blessing for yer marriage from the book of Romans,” said the priest. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
“Welcome to Maclachlan Castle, m’lady.” Connor gestured to the fine castle on the hill.
“Oh, indeed it is lovely!” Effie spurred her horse up the hill, though the mountainous terrain forced her to dismount and walk the last part of the way. “’Tis a verra defensible position.”
“Aye. ’Tis a goodly situation,” said Connor. “I do hope it pleases ye.”
Effie hoped it would too. They had been traveling for months, stopping to spend time with the Campbells along the way to Connor’s homeland. The day after the wedding, they had been forced to pack up and move as the English took ownership of Alnsworth Castle. Effie cared little for the castle but was greatly pleased by her twin sister Elyne’s return with a bridegroom of her own. In the end, everything had worked out to Effie’s satisfaction, and now she was excited to see her new home.
The castle itself had two towers on either side of a five-story square keep. It was relatively new and surrounded by a thick stone wall. Effie noted the solid construction and high position with approval. She could live here.
With Connor at her side, she rode into the courtyard to the cheers of his clan. His parents and the rest of the entourage followed. The clan came out to meet them and she was pleased to greet them. The Machlachlan clan were a friendly lot.
“Come,” Connor whispered in her ear. He took her by the hand and led her up three flights of stairs to what must be the family solar.
“This is a pleasant room,” said Effie, turning in a circle to take its measure.
“Aye, I wish to show ye this.” Connor led her to a door in the solar which led to a bedchamber. He pulled her in and closed the door, fastening the latch.
“And this room is…?”
“Mine. Ours.” Connor easily picked her up and carried her to the bed. He kissed her slowly before he laid her gently on the bed. “I have been wanting time alone wi’ ye for so long.”
“We have been traveling wi’ many o’ yer clan.”
“I love them truly, but I fear I have wished them all to blazes if only to spend one uninterrupted night wi’ ye.”
“Not verra charitable, my love.”
“True. But honest.” He lay beside her on the bed. “I have been wanting nothing more than to hold ye all night, to love ye all night…”
“Wi’out the helpful advice, comments, and encouragement from yer mother?” giggled Effie.
Lady Maclachlan had made it abundantly clear she was awaiting grandchildren and would accept nothing less than at least one of them nine months after the wedding.
“Och, aye,” groaned Connor. “I did not marry ye for yer birthing hips.”
“Too bad. According to yer mother it is my best feature.”
Now Connor had to laugh. “I want ye for ye. I do love ye so. I have no need to fill our nursery soon.”
Effie curled up beside him. She was home. “Mayhap my news will no’ please ye.”
“I am with child.”
Connor sat up, a huge smile on his face. “Truly?”
“Well then.” He gave her a wide grin and leaned down to kiss her stomach. “I am seeing yer birthing hips wi’ new appreciation.”
Effie laughed and Connor joined her. “Shall we tell yer mother now?” asked Effie.
“Soon, but for now, let me enjoy ye and yer little one all to myself.” Connor kissed her slowly and all rational thought fled her mind.
“I love ye,” they said together.