The Highlander's Outlaw Bride (8 page)

BOOK: The Highlander's Outlaw Bride
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The doors to the Great Hall opened and a young woman with shining silver hair flowing in loose curls past her shoulders strode through the doorway, radiant and confident in her royal finery. A herald’s voice rang out.

“Lady Brianna of Wyndham!”

Conn watched in stunned disbelief as the faerie princess who had haunted his dreams for the past two nights lifted her chin and approached the king.

Chapter 9

Brianna stopped at the appointed spot before the king and dropped into a deep curtsy. King Robert eyed her thoughtfully, stroking his chin, looking very much like a stern father debating how best to chastise an errant daughter. Brianna chafed beneath his silent admonition, the words she would have spoken to her father in a similar situation best left unsaid.

Remembering her need for clemency, she waited, bowing her head in deference. The moment drew longer, and she became uneasy. Had the sheriff already approached him? Would he believe the sheriff’s testimony?

“Come closer, Lady Brianna.” The king beckoned with a wave of his hand.

She lifted her skirts and stepped forward until she stood directly before her king. Once again he regarded her in silence, though a faint smile touched his lips.

“I knew yer great-uncle well. Lord John of Islay is a frequent visitor here.”

“He was married to my mother’s aunt many years ago.”

King Robert nodded. “Ye realize he divorced her in order to marry my Margaret?”

“Aye. Ma was fourteen and already in love with my father. She was less concerned with the affairs of those around her, though she always spoke kindly of Lord John. Her own parents never wed, and she was grateful Lady Amy took her in after her father died.”

“I understand yer mother passed away some years ago.”

A twinge of pain caught in Brianna’s chest and she blinked back sudden tears. “Aye.”

The king gave her a kind smile and an approving nod. “It seems she did well by her daughter. Ye are forthright and well-spoken. Most people are tongue-tied to address their king.”

A smile curved Brianna’s lips. “She did her best, Sire. She taught me what she could in the years before her death, though I was quite young. I was an indifferent pupil, I fear.”

“I dinnae know yer mother, but Lord John once mentioned her to me. He said she was a beautiful, clever lass who fell deeply in love with yer father, and pined for him every day until permission was given for them to marry.”

Brianna ducked her head, dismayed his kind words again threatened to make her cry. She took a deep breath. “I thank ye, Sire. I remember it so. She has been dead these past five years, and I miss her still.”

King Robert’s eyes twinkled. “Ye seem to have inherited her spirit.”

“Mayhap, though I remember her as elegant and composed even under the most provoking circumstances.”

“What provoking circumstances was she subject to?” The king’s frown was puzzled.

Brianna laughed. “’Twas most likely me, Sire. I would imagine I was the most provoking thing in her life.”

King Robert roared with appreciation. “Ye realize Lord John’s divorce was a political move, not a personal choice, though I believe he and Margaret suit each other well. And such a move has very likely saved yer life.”

“’Twas my thought as well as I stood before the sheriff, Sire.”

“Then tell me, Lady Brianna. What is yer petition of yer king?”

Brianna sobered immediately. She bowed her head for a moment to collect her thoughts. In her banter with the king, she had all but forgotten why she was here.

She lifted her gaze. “Sire, my people are clan Douglas of Wyndham. We are small in number, but have always been fortunate in the raising of cattle and crops. Several months ago, my father and Laird MacLaurey entered into a protection agreement against reivers on our southern border, and until two months ago, this benefited us greatly.” Brianna paused, her gaze sliding away from the king as she delicately avoided mention of the betrothal that had sealed the agreement.

“But Laird MacLaurey died, and his son has been gone from Morven for some time. His cousin laid claim to the title and dinnae see fit to continue the agreement, and the reivers have now decimated our herds.”

Agitated to remember the cause of her problems, she began to pace the floor in front of the king. “Five years ago, Ma died, and since then, in his sorrow at her passing, Da’s mind has slowly left him. He is currently incapable of protecting our clan.”

She whirled abruptly and faced the king. “Sire, I couldnae bear it. Last year the adults went hungry. This year, since the agreement has failed, the bairns will also suffer.” Drawing herself up proudly, she gave the king a frank stare. “I gathered six trusted Douglas soldiers, and together we have been taking back cattle stolen from us. We cannae fend the reivers off—there are too few of us. We know the land well and have been fortunate to locate most of our cattle before they were sold. So far we have returned nearly all to their rightful owners.”

King Robert leaned forward on his throne, rapt fascination on his face. Brianna continued her story.

“Two weeks ago, cattle were stolen from Wyndham land. We went to retrieve them, but were captured by the sheriff at Glenkirk and his men. My soldiers and I were to be hanged, but I pleaded with the sheriff to allow us to fall upon yer mercy.”

Brianna’s voice softened and she spread her hands in supplication. “Sire, we are not reivers. We were caught with cattle not our own, but we dinnae steal from other crofters. We truly believed the cattle to be ours. I have since learned it was a trap set by someone as yet unknown to me. I beg ye to remove the title of ‘outlaw’ from me and the brave Douglas soldiers who but did as their hearts and circumstances dictated, and let us return to our families at Wyndham.”

King Robert nodded, looking thoughtful. After a moment, he smiled. Raising his hands, he stood before his court as Brianna sank to her knees, head bowed as she prepared to hear her doom.

“Lady Brianna, We find ye and yer soldiers not guilty of reiving, but caught trying to keep yer clansmen and their possessions safe. We hereby rescind the charge of outlaw and restore ye fully to clan Douglas. Step forth, lady.”

She stood and took a step closer. “Sire?”

King Robert cleared his throat and returned to his chair, spreading his robes across his lap. “I am impressed with yer courage and desire to see yer clan succeed. I release ye from the custody of the crown and send ye on yer way.” He lifted a hand in check as she started to speak.

“However, I will send ye back with an escort.”

Brianna looked around in puzzlement. She had several perfectly competent soldiers who would be more than adequate escort for her. Perhaps the king meant for her to travel under his banner, though his papers of amnesty would surely guarantee their safety. The king beckoned to someone at the back of the room.

“Inasmuch as I would have this settled, I will see to the union of yer clan with MacLaurey and fulfill the betrothal set forth. Connor MacLaurey, stand forward.”

What? Brianna tore her dumbfounded gaze from the king and whirled to see the man once bound to her. She stared at the man as he strode the length of the room. He was tall and well-built, confident, with a swagger to his walk. His face was clean-shaven beneath thick, blond hair, and his eyes—good Lord, those eyes belonged to the man who had tormented her dreams these past nights!

“Nae, Sire, please—” She bit back her words, realizing she contradicted the king. Beneath the regal question in his eyes, she took a steadying breath, clasping her hands before her, gripping them tight to focus her thoughts.

“Sire, please understand, the first priority in my life is to my clan. I care for both my young brother and my ailing father. To protect the clan, he sought an agreement with this…” She cut her eyes to the man standing calmly beside her, quelling the urge to pinch him solely to garner some response from him.

Giving him an uneasy look, she continued. “We received help from MacLaurey for several months, but after the laird died, the arrangement also died and his son, nursing a broken heart, continued to find solace in skirts and wine from here to France, unconcerned with our fate.”

A gasp and clang sounded as a jeweled goblet tumbled from the king’s cup bearer’s hands, reminding Brianna that others were close enough to hear her derisive assassination of Laird MacLaurey’s character. Her cheeks burned as a ripple of whispered speculation swept the room. From the corner of her eye she saw Bray’s arms fold cross his chest, a scowl on his face. Gillis dropped his oatcake, mouth agape. Beside her, Conn stiffened as though he’d been lashed.

In trembling silence, she waited for the king to consider her plight, praying Conn would not mention their intimate encounter only a few days prior. That would settle the matter entirely, and the king would not be able to see her married fast enough.

I am no maid to be bartered like so much oats or cattle. I want to live my life on my terms, not theirs
. She brutally pushed aside memory of the passion ignited in her, the fire that lingered still within. Her heartbeat fluttered and she felt faint. She clenched her fists until her nails bit into her palms.
I willnae swoon before the king!

The king frowned. “Are ye asking me to deny yer betrothal to MacLaurey?”

She bit her lip and considered his question. Surely Conn could see how unsuited they were and agree to release her from the contract.

“The betrothal died with his father. He has no care for Wyndham.”

King Robert turned to MacLaurey. “Would ye still marry her, though she doesnae appear to be pleased with ye?”

“Aye. I would.”

Brianna’s wide-eyed gaze flew back to the king. “Sire, I am no maid, but a widow with no bairns to bring to the marriage. He should be free to find a woman of his choosing who would give him an heir.”

The king looked again to Conn, his eyebrows raised in question.

“I will suffer the risk.”

“I willnae see ye seeking another if she doesnae produce an heir,” the king warned.

“Her previous husband was young. I believe I can do better.”

The Macrory lass dinnae hesitate to abandon yer charms
. The sudden tic in Conn’s cheek told her she had voiced the words aloud, though a furtive glance assured only he had heard her.

The king stared from Brianna to Conn and back for several nerve-wracking moments. “Lady Brianna, ye need a husband and MacLaurey needs a wife. I am certain it will all work out.” This time there was no mistaking the note of finality in King Robert’s voice.

“Sire, I have no desire to wed!” Brianna blurted out, partly lifting her hands in desperation.

“Ye wish to retire to a nunnery?” the king asked in surprise. Conn turned a wry, challenging look on her, silently forcing her to remember the passion she was capable of and daring her to deny it. Her cheeks burned with furious anger at both men.

“Nae, Sire,” she muttered.

“Then have ye another husband in mind?”

“Nae.”

King Robert threw his hands into the air. “Then, instead of seeing ye wed before ye leave, I give ye opportunity to enjoy each other’s company for the duration of yer visit and yer travel home. Ye will come to an understanding by then. I give ye, Brianna, a further two weeks to see yer clan’s needs are met. At that time, ye will wed without further hesitation.”

He stood to his feet, towering over them from his position on the dais. “Connor MacLaurey, I hereby charge ye with fulfilling yer sworn duty to Lady Brianna of Wyndham. Lady Brianna, ye are charged with yer sworn duty to Connor MacLaurey of Morven. Ye find yerself in favor with the crown. Long may ye both live.”

Smiling broadly, the king stepped down and took Brianna’s face in his hands, placing a kiss on each cheek. He stepped closer to Conn and clapped a hand to his shoulder. “’Twas not by chance she was arrested for reiving. Someone wants her out of the way. Guard her well.”

Conn acknowledged the warning with a nod and the king favored the pair with a paternal smile. “Stay with us for a few days. We will host a banquet in honor of yer betrothal two days hence.” He waved to his advisor, who nodded at an aide, who scurried away to carry out the king’s wishes. Brianna was too stunned to move.

Chapter 10

Numb, Brianna gathered her skirts. She had no desire to speak to this man the king had bound her to, nor did she wish to stay in his presence a moment longer. Once again she had been manipulated into marriage, and her blood boiled with resentment.

A shudder. Could this marriage be different? She snorted in disgust at the idea. No matter how attracted she may have been to the man, ’twas all for naught in the end.

Her step quickened and she fled the room to the stairway leading to her chamber. An iron grip on her arm yanked her to a stop and she whirled to face Conn, his expression black with fury.

“Let go of me!” she hissed angrily.

Conn released her arm, but did not move away. “What do ye think ye are about? Are ye dead set on being hanged?”

“The king pardoned me.”

“Aye, for reiving. Disobedience to the king is treason and will also get ye hanged.”

Brianna eyed him narrowly, unable to quell her toe as it tapped the stone floor impatiently. “I dinnae want to marry.”

BOOK: The Highlander's Outlaw Bride
12.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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