The trouble all began when her mother named her after a horse.
Thinking about her best friend back in England, and how she must be enjoying the last of the season in London right now, Lady Annabella Stewart shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. Resentment and humiliation seethed within her. Everything had looked so bright promising that day a few months ago when she left Saltwood Castle and journeyed to her family's town house in London. She had just turned seventeen, it was to be her first season, and she had considered herself the most fortunate of women.
Oh, how the world had turned upon her! You should have known Bella. You should have known. Anyone named after a horse...
Shortly before she was born, her mother had attended a horse race, and had watched a beautiful dapple-gray filly named Lady Annabella cross the finish line first to win. "But, Bella," her mother had often said since, "it was a very beautiful horse. And it did come in first."
Only when a glass of champagne was thrust in her hand did Annabella pull her thoughts away from England and the past to Scotland and the present. Over, she thought. My life will soon be over. This couldn't be happening. Not to her. She stared at her father, feeling the panicked pounding of her heart, the choking fingers of fate tightening around her throat. Feeling sick and desperate, she let her eyes do her pleading. The Duke of Grenville narrowed his eyes slightly and cleared his throat. He did not speak.
Annabella closed her eyes, shutting from her sight the vision of her father's grim face. He's going to do it, she thought. He's really going to go through with this. She would be betrothed coldheartedly, and without feeling, to a man she had just met, a man who had been twenty years old when she was born.
Humiliated, Annabella felt the chill of the castle reach out to her from the far corners of the room. This was a celebration, a gathering of family and clans to seal a bargain and honor a betrothal. It should be a happy occasion.
But instead, it was a day of sadness. Annabella's mother tried to look cheerful, but her eyes sparkled a bit too brightly to be anything but tears. Upstairs, Bettina the maid was crying. Jarvis, the duke's valet, had something in his eye. Outside, the rain poured down. Even the candles in the candelabra dripped.
"Here's tae us and to hell with the English!"
The loudly flung toast sliced through the soft tones of conversation like a thunderclap, leaving nothing but the eerie silence of a tomb behind.
Anyone in the great hall of Dornoch Castle could have shouted it. At any other time that toast would have been enough to raise the hackles on any red-blooded Englishman, but Alisdair Stewart, the Duke of Grenville, simply looked at his daughter, Annabella, and John Gordon, the Earl of Huntly, her betrothed, and raised his glass. "May you enjoy a long and happy life together."
He looked at his wife and smiled. The duchess raised her glass, and smiled, looking at their daughter. But Annabella did not smile. She did not look at anyone. Instead, she stared at a fixed point in the tapestry across the room, her breathing uneven, and tried to hide the outrage she felt at being betrothed to this Scot.
She prayed for a sudden shot of courage, but all she felt was shame—shame for being such a coward; shame for wanting to cry instead of resist; shame for being the shivering, quaking thing that she knew she was. Why could she not think of the hundred things a woman of spirit could say or do at a time like this? Why could she merely tremble and go pale, or look heartbroken and wretched? It was a painful thing to see herself as she was—meek, obedient, green as grass; a malleable young woman submissive to parental authority with no more spunk than a sleeping babe and very little optimism.
"To my betrothed," Huntly said with an edge to his voice that stirred terror within her.
Knowing she must look at her husband-to-be, she turned to face him, smiling to cover a growing wave of hysteria. Cold and terrified, she blinked to hold back tears and prayed her thoughts would take their prodding elsewhere. In a blur of misery, she thought again of Emily, her best friend back home in England. How Emily must be enjoying the last of the season in London right now. Annabella shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. She had never felt so lonely, or so wretched. She wanted to cry. She wanted to go home.
She had said as much to her mother only that morning. "I want to sleep in my own bed and wake up to a real English breakfast. I want to have tea at Aunt Ellen's. I want to paint pictures of the caravans in Peasholme Green during Martinmas Fair. I don't care is I never put another foot in Scotland for as long as I live. I don't like seaweed jelly. I don't like eels. And I hate haggis. I don't know how anyone could like it. I don't understand these people. They're insulting and intimidating. They talk strangely. They look at me strangely. They don't even like me." She swiped at the tears dripping onto her bodice. "I "ate the thought of being married. I don't want to spend the rest of my life eating all this horrible food with a man I don't even like. Why are things like this always happening to me?"
"Oh, Bella," her mother had said, enfolding her in her arms. "Would that I could do something to make you happy. I feel so helpless. All I can think to do is send for the hartshorn." "he two of them stood together and cried.
"I shall never be happy again, " Annabella had said at last.
Even now, here at this gathering several hours later, she felt the same way. She would never be happy. Never, never, never.
Across the room, Annabella's uncle, Colin McCullock, studied her thoughtfully. She stood pale and still as a pine, her eyes so full of unshed tears it was impossible to tell their exact color. Unlike Annabella and her mother, he didn't look particularly sad, but he also didn't look too pleased with the way things were going. As if sensing that Annabella could do with a little cheerful humor, he raised his glass for another toast. "May old Douglas Macleod loan you his Fairy Flag for your nuptial bed," he said, looking directly at Annabella. And then he did the strangest thing. He winked.
The wink would have been enough to send a spot of color to her cheeks. But the mention of the nuptial bed turned her entire face red. She looked at her uncle Colin, wondering what he meant. Colin McCulloch was the Earl of Dornoch and her mother's eldest brother. He was the head of the McCulloch clan and as boisterous and redhearted as they came—a Scot from the red pom-pom on his bonnet to the sgian-dubh in his stocking.
"I'll be loaning them my Fairy Flag all right, but judging from the looks o' the wee lass, this betrothal isna sittin' too well with her," said Douglas, called the Macleod by his kin.
"Aye," Colin said. He studied her gently. "She may be wishing for it to bring herring into the loch instead o' bairn to her belly."
While the laughter was at its loudest, the duchess looked at Annabella, wondering how to soothe he sad, bewildered youngest child. Leaning closer, she whispered, "The Fairy Flag is a Macleod treasure that supposedly came from the Crusades. It has three properties—carried into battle, it increased the number of Macleods; placed on the marriage bed, it ensures fertility; and it brings herring into the loch."
Annabella felt her mother's arm around her waist. She longed to drop her head on her mother's shoulder, as she had so often done as a child, as if that simple action could somehow act as a mighty stick in the spoke of wheels that had already been long in motion. Trying to still her panic she looked up at her mother. "Uncle is right," she whispered back, unable to keep the apprehension from a voice that was breathy and unsteady. "I'd rather have herring in the loch."
"Perhaps," her mother said, giving her a pat on the arm, "you will be blessed with both." The pat was bracing, but the voice quivered too much to offer comfort. And with good reason. The duchess was feeling mixed emotions herself. Her heart went out to Annabella for the grief she knew she was feeling, and it hardened toward her husband for his lack of understanding, for the ease with which he seemed to forget what it was like to be young and so influenced by the ways of the heart. She had tried to explain this to Annabella the day before by saying, "Your father simply has a sort of unruffled practicality that would drive a sober man to blue ruin." She would have gone on to say more about the urge to take a nip or two of gin herself, but about that time the duke walked into the room—which was always an effective curb to any conversation.
Whatever the duchess was going to think next was interrupted by the pouring of another round of champagne. She patted her daughter's hand, offering consolation in the only way she could. "The Scots aren't such a bad lot. Their ways just seem a bit strange at first, but soon you'll learn to love them."
Annabella attempted to stifle a gasp. "Love them? I don't see how anyone could love them. I've never seen such mean, ill-mannered people in my life. Father was being kind when he said they were 'half-tamed.' A wilder lot I've never seen."
Her mother smiled, leaning closer to whisper, "That's because you've been around my family. Not all Highlanders are so unruly. Take your betrothed for instance. He's quite the gentleman, even by English standards." Seeing the frown on her daughter's face, she added, "Don't be forgetting that more than half of your blood is as wild as the Highlands where Colin and I were born. Now smile, Bella, and try to look happy."
Annabella didn't want to smile. Happy looks were for happy people; and all in all, this was a very negative day for her. She didn't want to be here in Scotland. She didn't want to be attending this betrothal celebration. And she most certainly did not want to be betrothed to anyone. Not to any of the endless parade of men her father had considered back in London, and absolutely not to Lord Huntly, the man he had eventually decided upon. Most assuredly she did not want to be betrothed to a Scot. And what Englishwoman would? Here's tae us and to hell with the English, indeed.
Annabella stole a look at the man she was destined to wed one year hence. How could her father, a man she had always adored, have done this? All five of her sisters were married to refined, smooth-speaking men, English men. Men who would live in a civilized place like London, or Kent, or even York. How well she could remember her sisters' reaction upon hearing their father had promised his youngest and last daughter to a Scot:
"A Scot?" repeated Judith. "He must be daft!"
"How could Father be such a fool?" asked Jane.
Coming to her feet, Sara said, "Every unmarried duke in England has begged for Annabella's hand. Why didn't father settle on one of them?"
To which Margaret replied by asking, "Why is Father shipping her off to Scotland as if he couldn't find a good English husband for her? And why would any Scot want an English wife? They don't even like us."
Elizabeth answered that one in her most pretentious Scottish brogue: "Because the deaf man will aye hear the clink o' money."
On any other occasion they would have laughed. But this day was different. "I'm sure Father has his reasons, and to him it seems quite the thing to do. It's simply that men have such an odd way of looking at things," Jane said, sliding her arm around Annabella. "Still, I can't believe he would do such a thing to his own flesh and blood."
And neither could Annabella.
Never could she have imagined her father would settle upon anyone for her husband other than a man from her own country, an Englishman. "But, Bella, the Scots are English," her father said.
A point that caused her mother's Scottish blood to run a little warmer. She sent the duke a peevish look. "No, Alisdair," she said with perfect calmness. "The Scots aren't English. They won't ever be English any more than the English will ever be Scots."
The duke looked skeptical—something he did a lot around his wife and daughters. "What do you mean, they won't ever be English? They've been part of England for over a hundred years," he said.
"They're part of Great Britain, but that doesn't make them English." The duke opened his mouth as if to strengthen his position, but the duchess cut him off with a wave of her hand. "You're bested and you know it, Alisdair. One man against seven women..."
"I manage to prevail, Anne," he said.
"Yes, you do—occasionally."
"Scot or English, we're all one," the duke said in his defense. "It's the same with families."
"Perhaps. As long as you don't forget that the clan is stronger than the chief."
"And don't you be forgetting that I h'ae a bit o'Scots blood in me."
His wife said something that sounded like "humph," then added, "Your Scots blood is watered down with English tea to do you any good."
"His blood isn't watered down, it's cold," Sara said, glaring at her father.
Wishing she had the fortitude to say something like that, Annabella stiffened her spine and tried not to look beseeching as she said, "Why do I have to marry a Scot when none of my sisters did?"
The duke looked at Anne with a question in his eyes. "Should we tell her?"
"Tell me what?" Annabella asked. She looked past her father to where her mother was standing. "Am I being bartered to the highest bidder like a prize sow at the fair?"
"No, dear, you aren't being bartered," Anne said. "And don't refer to yourself in such common terms."
"Has Father gambled away our fortune at White's?" Bella asked her mother. "Are we destitute? Is that it?"
The duke scowled. "I rarely go to White's anymore, and when I do, it isn't to gamble. More importantly, I am not a man to sell my daughter for thirty pieces of silver."
"Thirty-one pieces, perhaps," Elizabeth said.
It was the first time they found something to laugh about—everyone save Annabella, that is.
Refusing to be distracted by anything, not even humor, Annabella drove her question home. "Why are you and Father being so secretive?"
Anne sighed and looked at her husband, who looked as if he would rather be anywhere else at this moment than standing here in the library with his family. "I suppose we owe it to her," he said.
"Owe me what?" Annabella almost shouted, but the word came out in a flustered, disjointed voice that made it sound as if she was having second thoughts. Before she lost all her nerve, she said hastily, "Do you intend to tell me, or tease me to death?"
"Do you want to tell her?" the duke asked his wife.
Anne looked at Annabella and shook her head. The perfect picture of wifely submission, she said in the meekest of tones, "No, dear, you go ahead."
All hell was breaking loose in the back of Annabella's mind—where she was imagining the worst—which was probably what prompted her to throw up her hands and say without thinking, "I've never had so many people talking circles around me."
Her mother made a big to-do about straightening a few books on the bookshelf beside her, her cheeks suffused with bright red color. She did not look away until the duke cleared his throat and said, "I think I'll join you."
Distracted by the pillar of meekness her mother had suddenly become, Annabella found her attention momentarily diverted from the catastrophe at hand. She almost smiled at the novelty of it.
The duke took advantage of this unexpected lull and bolted for a finely made wine cellarette and opened it. Taking out an elaborately gilded decanter inscribed BURGUNDY and removing the cut spire stopper, he poured himself half a glass. A second glance at his wife made him hastily fill it to the brim. He finished that glass and half of another before he spoke. "When I fell in love with your mother and wanted to marry her, her father wasn't too keen about marrying his daughter to an Englishman, regardless of the fact that I had Scottish ancestors."
"He must have warmed to the idea," Annabella said. Then looking suddenly horrified, she sprang to her feet and asked, "Don't tell me you aren't married."
The duke laughed and regarded his youngest with loving fondness. "Of course we're married."
Relieved, Annabella sat back down as her father continued. "Old Donald McCulloch agreed to the marriage, because he was a shrewd old buzzard and knew uniting his family with such an illustrious English family as mine was a wise decision. But he made on stipulation: If we had only one daughter, she was to marry a Scot."
"You have six daughters," Annabella put in.
"There's more to it than that," the duke said. "If we had several daughters, the youngest one had to marry a Scot."
To be singled out to suffer by her very own grandfather was a fate she didn't deserve, and she cursed the solitary event that would change the course of her life. How unfair it was—but there was nothing she could do except ache for what might have been and hate the callousness of her unfeeling grandfather—which did nothing to endear anything connected with Scotland to her.
"Donald McCulloch is dead now. What difference does it make whom I marry?" Like a mouse in a trap struggling to free itself, Annabella felt her emotions go from anger, to desperation, and back to anger. "You aren't afraid of a dead man, are you?" The moment she uttered the words her head flew up and her eyes widened. She wondered if it was fear or anger that drove one insane, for surely she must be so to speak so to her father.
But if he was offended by her pinprick of a challenge, he took no notice. "No, I'm not afraid of a dead man," he said thoughtfully. Then, shaking his head with disbelief, he added, "although I do feel that if anyone could make it back from the hereafter to haunt me, old Donald McCulloch could. He was a superstitious man, a believer in bogeys and warlocks, kelpies and monsters. And all this was sprinkled with a daft streak." The duke glanced at his wife, and seeing Anne wasn't taking any of this too badly, he went on. "You were born at midnight and Donald believed any child born in the wee sma' oors was destined to be different."
"Different," Annabella repeated. Then as if it had suddenly become apparent, she added, "And he made certain that I would be different, by forcing you to such an agreement." A sudden afterthought made her eyes widen. "You don't have to keep your promise," she said meekly. "He's been dead for a long time. Probably no one remembers such a promise."
"He had it written into our marriage contract, so he could rest easy. If you don't marry a Scot, Bella, we would be guilty of breaching the contract."
"Isn't there any way we can get out of my being forced to obey? What if I never married?"
"You don't have that choice," the duke said, looking away from her.
"And if we refuse? If we breach the contract, what happens?"
"Our marriage could be invalidated and all of our children declared illegitimate."
Rising to her feet with a swish of ruby red Chinese silk, Annabella walked to the ornately carved library doors and paused. "I wish Grandfather were still alive," she said to her mother. "So I could tell him just what I think of him and his stipulation." Then Annabella did something she had never done before. She slammed the door behind her.
The duchess released a long-held sigh. "Dear me," she said to the duke. "Do you suppose we have a rebellion on our hands?"
"No," the duke said. "It's just some of that wild blood from your side of the family that's boiling. But don't worry. Annabella has been reared with a firm hand and a strong understanding of what is expected of her. Good breeding and discipline will carry her through when common sense won't. She'll come around."
His wife was still staring at the door. "I'm not so sure," she said.
"My love, our daughter is an English lady through and through. She won't let us down."
"I know, but she reminds me so much of my father. Every so often I feel that wild Highland spirit lives on in Annabella."
"Your father was dead before she was a year old. She's never even been to Scotland."
"That doesn't matter. My father always said it took two generations to breed Scots blood into a man and two to breed it out. Annabella is only the first generation."
"I still say we just need to give her time. She'll come around and see things our way."
Over the weeks that followed, Annabella hadn't warmed to the idea, nor had she begun to see thing their way, but she had accepted it, as she did all dictates from her parents. She might be half-Scot, but she was, just as her father had said, all English lady. She had been reared to fear the Lord, honor her mother and father, and exhibit the suitable qualities of a gently born English lady, behaving with well-bred appropriateness at all times. The proper upbringing of the daughters of the Duke of Grenville was of prime importance, and great care was taken to see that all six of the duke's daughters learned to display, by their restraint, the superior birth and breeding. For all of her young years, Annabella Catriona Stewart had behaved, not as she pleased, but as was expected of her. Never, not even once, had she been a disappointment to her parents in that regard.
And now, several weeks later, she was far from the civilized life she had known at Saltwood Castle, or even at the Duke of Grenville's town house in London. Here she was at Dornoch Castle, a place of bleak landscapes and swirling, dark waters, where even the roar of the sea couldn't drown the harsh echoes of the Scottish tongue. Even in her bitterness, she tried to remind herself that this was her mother's home, the place of the duchess's birth.
Reminding herself of this fact, Annabella looked at the gilt-framed paintings that lined the damp stone walls. Her own history stared back at her. Within these cold gray walls lay part of her past. But her future? What of that?
Annabella looked at her mother's concerned face and felt her legs tremble. What had her mother said? Smile, Bella, and try to look happy. Looking happy was impossible, but knowing how important it was to her mother, she did her best to smile. Smiling was difficult. Especially when one was crying inside. Never had she felt so helpless or so hopeless. She had been given no time to adjust to the horrible shock, to the surprise revelation that she was to marry a man of her father's choosing—and close to her father's age—when the next thing she knew, her father had announced she would marry a Scot.
Never to live in England again? She felt her eyes burn with repressed tears as she stole a look at her betrothed once more. What a travesty. What an insult. She would never be ready to marry him, the man they called John Gordon, the Earl of Huntly.
She had known it since yesterday, from the moment she had first set eyes upon him. Perhaps it was only the difference in their ages that made her think of him more as a father figure than a lover, but after Colin McCulloch had introduced them, Annabella could only stare, her eyes huge with alarm and disbelief. Through a bleary haze Huntly had cupped her chin in his hand and turned her face to the light.
For a moment he stared down into her pale green eyes, seeing something one could call only hopeless resignation in their depths. He released her. A cold hardness settled within her heart.
"So you're Colin McCulloch's niece," he said, glancing at Colin, as if to see if there was any resemblance.
"Yes," Annabella said, feeling tortured by her own misery.
"No one bothered to tell me you were such a bonny lass."
And no one bothered to tell me you were so old. Despair welled within her.
After a miserably long dinner, they had parted. Annabella offered her hand and felt a shiver as his cold lips pressed against it. At that moment, she knew this man would never be capable of "igniting a fire within her and bringing the slumbering coals of passion to life," as she had overheard her father say to her mother. The Earl of Huntly didn't look as if he could ignite a trail of gunpowder with a blazing lucifer.
With sublime effort, Annabella forced herself to give her attention to yet another toast. At least all this champagne was dulling her senses and quelling the desire to cry. She listened to more comments and wishes for married bliss. Her head ached and she felt strange, as if she were watching all this from some place far away. Surely this was all a dream—a nightmare for which she would soon awake. Trying to shut out the reality, she closed her eyes, remembering, wishing, knowing even as she did it was all fruitless. Everything was lost to her now. Her future was sealed. Last night she had slept in Dornoch Castle for the first time. Just one night ago she had fallen into a deep, troubled sleep and heard voiced—voiced that made her remember the tales told at dinner, tales of how the McCullochs had always been known for their courage, and how they would ignore the opinion of the world and risk death and damnation for what they believed in.
She had opened her eyes. She wasn't at Dornoch Castle, or even Saltwood, but a strange place, a place of swirling mists with the crashing sound of the sea nearby. She was standing at an altar beside her betrothed, when a strange, dark mist began to fill the room and the sound of bagpipes saturated the air. And then she saw him, tall and straight as a Scottish fir, his hair as black as midnight and eyes as blue as a bonny loch, his strong body wrapped in yards of plaid and swirling mist.
Suddenly he was between them, taking her hand from her betrothed. Shouts erupted. A dozen swords were soon at his throat. Yet the sound of his laughter rent the air. His plaid drifted like the mist, all about her, and Annabella felt herself lifted and borne away. She fought against the plaid that covered her face, tried to see his face, to ask his name.
Then she awoke.
The memory of that dream brought the rise of emotion to the back of her throat. Maintaining her composure was difficult, but she called to mind all she had been taught, remembering who she was and what was expected of her. With firm resolve, she began to take hold of herself. She wasn't a child who believed in fairy tales. Lord Huntly was her reality, her betrothed; there was naught she could do about it, short of dying, and she wasn't quite ready for that yet. Her dark brows drew together. As Huntly turned to speak to her mother, Annabella looked him over.
AS far as gentlemen went, she could do worse, she supposed. He was handsome enough—for an older man—but nothing about him or his manner stirred any feeling to life within her. At least he wasn't fat, or ugly, or illiterate and uncouth. At least he looked very much the English gentleman, with his sandy blond hair and pale blue eyes. And he dressed very much in the manner of an English gentleman. As far as manners were concerned, he was as proper as any English lord, and that was just it. Everything about him was proper and dull, and she couldn't shake the feeling that her life with this man stretched before her as bleak and barren as these windswept moors. In Annabella's opinion, Lord Huntly was plain as English pudding.
Gordon, as if sensing her study, turned toward her and smiled fleetingly. But Annabella knew all about practiced smiles. Hadn't she spent hours herself in front of a mirror under the tutelage of her governess practicing a smile, a flutter of eyelashes, or the opening of her fan with a flick of her wrist? Women of the English ton would give up a London season for such a man. The thought distracted her, and she immediately found fault with not only his appearance but everything about him. How odd, she thought, that in a place overrun with wild, unruly men I should find his genteel appearance, his gentrified manners, his very Englishness, so annoying.
And then again, perhaps it wasn't any of those things. Perhaps it was only the fact that she was being forced to marry him that she found so distasteful.
Annabella shivered, as if a cold hand had brushed over her. She glanced around the room: nothing was out of the ordinary, yet she felt another presence. She pushed the feeling away and returned Huntly's smile. Although her smile was frozen and weak, he looked pleased by it. She sensed concealed mysteries behind his light-colored eyes.
Suddenly, and without warning, the doors to the hall broke open and a great wind filled the room, swirling and moaning and gutting candles. Two servants quickly closed the doors and an eerie silence followed as the candles were relit, one by one. The wind howled down the chimney, then was still. A light knocking was heard. Tap. Tap. Tap.
"A raven," Colin said. "Tapping at the window."
"A sign of death," someone behind Annabella whispered.
"Come, my lady," Huntly said. "Let them fall victim to their silly superstitions. It's naught but a tree branch scraping against a windowpane."
Annabella's benumbed mind reacted dumbly and she blinked in confusion at the man standing beside her. The earl held out his arm. "Shall we go?" he asked.
Annabella nodded and placed her trembling hand upon his arm, her touch whisper light. Together they led the way to dinner, Annabella's mind not upon the meal they would share, or even the lifetime they would spend together.
As they walked slowly toward the great dining hall of Dornoch Castle, she was thinking how she wished everything had been different. If she were going to be forced to marry a Scot, why couldn't it have at least been one like the famous Highland chiefs of old—the clan leaders she had always heard so much about—a man who would risk ruin or death for a dream of passion as wild as the Highlands, a bonny fighter with an adventurous spirit who would invade her life and conquer her heart, a man as passionate as he was reckless?
A man like the man in her dream. A man who would risk death and defy the world for what he believed in. A man who would laugh in the face of danger.