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Lady's Choice
By Amanda Scott

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 Lady's Choice

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Lady's Choice
By Amanda Scott
ISBN: 0446616699
Genre: Romance

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Chapter Excerpt from: Lady's Choice , by Amanda Scott

Chapter 1

Glenelg, the Scottish Highlands, April 14, 1380

Where is Sir Hugo?” nineteen-year-old Lady Sorcha Macleod demanded impatiently. She cradled a profusion of flowers in her arms as she gazed down the steep hill at the sparkling water of the Sound of Sleat, the deep sea-lane flowing between Glenelg, on the mainland, and the Isle of Skye.

Her younger sister, Lady Sidony, bending to pick some yellow celandine for their collection, said over her shoulder, “You cannot know that Sir Hugo even received your message. The messengers have not all returned. And, even if he did, you cannot know he will come for her or come in a boat if he does. He could easily ride from Lothian or come from somewhere else. He may even be in Caithness.”

“Faith, Sidony, I don’t care how the man arrives, just so he does,” Sorcha said impatiently. “If he does not show his face soon, he will be too late.”

“It is too bad the Lord of the Isles had to die when he did,” Sidony said as she arose and added her flowers to Sorcha’s. “Adela ought to be having as merry a wedding as everyone else has, but I fear that hers will be dreadfully dull. I still do not understand why Father agreed to hold the ceremony here instead of at Chalamine. The feast will take place at the castle, after all, and everyone else was married there.”

“Not everyone,” Sorcha reminded her. “Isobel married at Duart Castle.”

“Yes, but Cristina, Maura, and Kate were all married at home. I hope you and I will be, too—if Father ever finds anyone who wants to marry us,” she added.

“I don’t want someone Father chooses,” Sorcha said, grimacing. “At least Adela has a sunny day, and the wee kirk of Glenelg is a pretty site. Lord Pompous insisted that she marry him here on the kirk porch, since Father has no chaplain at Chalamine. And that settled the matter, of course, since Lord Pompous will be her husband unless Sir Hugo arrives in time to put a stop to this wedding.”

“I do not know why you are so sure he’d want to,” Sidony said, pushing a stray strand of her fair hair out of her face. As children, the two of them had looked enough alike to be twins with their fine, silky soft, white-blond curls and light-blue eyes. But although Sidony’s waist-long hair retained its original color, silky fineness, and soft waves, Sorcha’s had darkened to amber-gold and retained only its curls. To her chagrin, in the frequent Highland mist and rain, they tended to frizz.

Their eyes were still a matching light-blue color. But Sorcha’s looked gray in certain light, and a black line rimmed each of her irises.

Semiconsciously mirroring her sister’s gesture, she shifted her floral burden to one arm to tuck an errant curl under her coif.

Sidony went on, “You’ve made such a song about sending for him that nearly everyone expects him now. But Adela seems content enough with this wedding.”

“Faugh,” Sorcha retorted rudely, abandoning her hair. “Adela would marry anyone who’d have her. She wants to be quit of managing Father’s household and us, especially now that he is to marry Lord Pompous’s cousin, Lady Clendenen. But Sir Hugo holds Adela’s heart, I’m sure. And I think he cares deeply for her, too.”

“But they’ve met only twice,” Sidony protested. “Once here in Glen Mòr last summer, and then shortly after that at Orkney.”

“Aye, well, it only takes once,” Sorcha said with more assurance than one might expect from a young woman who had never met a man she wanted to marry, or received an offer. “Adela talked of him for weeks after Prince Henry’s installation.”

“Do you think so?” Sidony asked doubtfully. “She said they quarreled the first time they met. The second time she emptied a basin of holy water over his head.”

Still watching the Sound, Sorcha exclaimed, “Three boats are coming! Oh, but how vexing! If I don’t mistake that banner, ’tis only Lord Pompous.”

“You should not call him that,” Sidony chided gently.

“Pooh,” Sorcha said. “Ardelve is as pompous a man as walks and far too old for Adela. Why, he must be near Father’s age, whilst she is but four-and-twenty.”

“Nearly five-and-twenty,” Sidony said.

“Even so, Sir Hugo is of a much more suitable age to marry her. She is sacrificing herself, just to get away from Chalamine.”

“Perhaps, but Father said he had despaired of ever seeing her marry,” Sidony said. With a rueful smile, she added, “You and I are old for wedding, come to that. Not that I am sure I’d want to, even if anyone did want me.”

“You are never sure of anything,” Sorcha said, patting her shoulder. “Depend on it, if you do marry, ’twill be because Father commands it. If you had to make up your mind, the hopeful bridegroom would die of old age first.”

“That is his lordship,” Sidony said, too familiar with Sorcha’s opinion of her indecisive nature to take offense. “And I see the wedding party coming. Do you not think we’d better go meet them if Adela is to carry the flowers we’ve gathered?”

“Aye, sure, especially since we already have enough for her chaplet, too,” Sorcha said as they hurried to greet the riders.

* * *

As Lady Adela Macleod’s wedding party forded the bubbling burn near the base of the hill and continued up toward the kirk, she felt almost wholly at peace. For the first time in too many years she was responsible for no one and nothing. She just had to be in a certain place at a certain time and say what the priest, a Macleod cousin of her father’s from Lewis, told her to say.

The feeling was heady, and as she rode beside her father, Macleod of Glenelg, the silence that enveloped them was pleasant.

Except for the tiny tickle at the back of her mind, all was well.

The small cluster of smiling villagers and friends near the kirk steps stood quietly, waiting. Even her usually talkative aunt, Lady Euphemia Macleod, remained unnaturally silent. She rode just behind them in her boxy, sheepskin-lined sidesaddle between two gillies mounted on ponies as placid as her own. At fifty, the whip-slim Lady Euphemia disliked riding and focused all her energy on keeping the boat-on-waves motion of her cumbersome saddle from tossing her to the ground.

The rest of the party included Adela’s older sister Maura, Maura’s husband and three children, and a few of the castle servants. Others had remained behind to prepare the wedding feast. Guests were few only because MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, having died recently, nearly everyone else in the Highlands and Isles was preparing for the investiture in two days’ time of his successor. Adela did not mind the small ceremony, though. She’d have been happy to marry by simple declaration, but women of her ilk rarely married in such a hasty, scrambling way.

She rode as her aunt did, sitting sideways, but with nothing between her and her favorite bay gelding except a dark-blue velvet caparison to protect her skirts. One of her younger sisters, Kate, had embroidered the caparison with branches of Macleod of Glenelg’s green juniper and had sent it especially for the occasion.

Like all six of her sisters, Adela preferred to ride astride. But she had known better than to suggest doing so in the new sky-blue silk gown her father had given her for her wedding. Blue to keep her true, he had said, citing from an ancient rhyme. He had refused to allow her favorite color due to his strong belief that if she wore pink, her good fortune would sink.

She saw her two youngest sisters watching from the open, grassy hilltop near the kirk and realized how glad she was that she had sent them ahead to gather blooms for her bouquet and chaplet. She had done it not only because the hilltop produced myriad wildflowers in an otherwise heavily forested area, but also because she had wanted as little fuss as possible while she dressed for her wedding.

Her ever-superstitious father disliked the fact that she had not gathered her own flowers, a task he believed would bring her good luck. When he noted the day’s sunshine, his strictures had ended, but no sooner did he clap eyes on Sorcha and Sidony than he sighed and said, “I hope ye mean to be a good wife to Ardelve, lass.”

“I do, sir,” Adela said. “I have always done my duty.”

“Aye, ’tis true, but I’d feel better if ye’d done all ye could to bring good fortune on yourself today.”

“The day is a perfectly splendid one,” Adela said. Shooting a swift, oblique glance his way, she added gently, “Yesterday was not so beautiful, sir.”

“’Tis true,” he agreed. “Cursed wi’ a gey thick mist, it were, from dawn’s light till suppertime. So it be nobbut providential that when Ardelve and I arranged the settlements, I persuaded him to put off the ceremony for the one day.”

“Why do you believe Friday is such a bad day to wed?” she asked. “Aunt Euphemia said many prefer it, because of its being dedicated to the Norse goddess of love. She said the notion that Friday is unlucky arose only during this past century.”

“Aye, well, Euphemia doesna ken everything,” Macleod said. “’Twas kind o’ her to journey here from Lochbuie for your wedding, but everyone kens that when a Friday falls on the thirteenth o’ the month, it does bring mortal bad luck. Bless me, lass,” he added, “I’d no let any o’ me daughters marry on such a bleak day!”

“But I don’t think everyone does know,” Adela persisted. “Ardelve did not. At least . . .” She fell silent, knowing he would not want to recall what Ardelve had said.

“Aye, I ken fine that the man thinks changing the day were nobbut a frippery notion o’ mine,” Macleod said, unabashed. “Still, he agreed, and as ye see, the Almighty ha’ blessed the day I picked wi’ sunshine.”

Adela nodded, and when he fell silent, she made no attempt to continue the conversation. The only sounds until they reached the kirkyard were soft thuds of hooves on the dirt path, cries of seabirds soaring overhead, and scattered twitters and chatters from nearby woodland.

Her sense of peace had not returned, however, and when she realized she was peering intently at each guest, she knew why. Sorcha had made no secret of her hope that Sir Hugo Robison would arrive in time to stop the wedding, and although Adela was certain her younger sister was mistaken in thinking he would come, she could not help wondering if he would, or how she would feel if he did.

Seeing no sign of that large, energetic, not to mention handsome, gentleman, she drew a long breath and released it. If she felt disappointment, she told herself it was only that his dramatic arrival might have added excitement to what was so far, despite the sunshine, a rather dull day.

As a gillie helped her dismount, her two youngest sisters approached to arrange flowers in her chaplet and give her the bouquet they had gathered.

“These flowers are lovely,” Adela said, smiling. “So bright and cheerful.”

“Sorcha set a basket of rose petals yonder, too, for us to strew along the path before you,” Sidony said, hugging her before they took their places and Macleod signed to his piper to begin playing.

Adela sighed, swept another nervous glance over the small group of onlookers, several of whom were looking around just as she was. Firmly dismissing Sir Hugo from her mind, she placed her hand on her father’s forearm.

* * *

As pipes skirled and the wedding party made its way up the path to the shallow porch of the kirk, Sorcha scattered her petals and wondered if the piper had mistaken Adela’s wedding for MacDonald’s funeral procession. The tune he had selected seemed more appropriate for the latter rite.

Behind the makeshift altar, double doors stood shut and would not open to admit everyone for the nuptial Mass until the ceremony had ended. The priest, Wee Geordie Macleod of Lewis, stood sternly erect beside the altar with the bridegroom and his chief groomsman to welcome the bride and her maidens.

Calum Tolmie, Baron Ardelve, a close cousin of the widow Macleod intended to marry, held a vast tract of land on the north shore of Loch Alsh. He was both wealthy and amiable, and thus, according to Macleod, an excellent match for Adela.

Sorcha disagreed, thinking Sir Hugo more suitable, although admittedly, she had never laid eyes on him. She still cursed her bad luck in having missed the trip to Orkney to see its prince installed, because that had been when the more fortunate Adela and their sister Isobel, each having met Sir Hugo Robison briefly before, had met him again and come to know him better.

Isobel was now happily married to Sir Hugo’s cousin, Michael St. Clair (or Sinclair, as the family had begun to spell their name), and they lived at Roslin Castle in Lothian. However, Sir Hugo had clearly made an impression on Adela, so Sorcha had made up her mind that Adela should marry him.

Reaching the porch steps, Sorcha turned and walked a few paces to the left, then watched as Sidony went right to make way for Adela and Macleod. He stopped on the lower of the two stone steps and let Adela go on alone to the porch, where Ardelve stepped forward to meet her in front of the altar.

Two low stools sat ready for them to kneel on, but before they did, the priest stepped forward and spread his arms wide.

The piper fell silent.

A gull screamed overhead.

Instead of the blessing that Sorcha expected to hear, Wee Geordie said in tones that carried to everyone, “Afore I pray to the Almighty, begging Him to ha’ the goodness to shine His face upon this couple and bless the union into which they be entering, I’m bound to ask if there be any amongst ye who kens any just cause or impediment to prevent the aforesaid union’s going forward. If ye do, speak now, mind ye, or forever keep silent about it.”

As silence closed in around them, Sorcha turned her head to look at the crowd. Others, likewise, glanced at their neighbors.

A low rumble sounded in the distance, almost, Sorcha thought, as if God had grown impatient and were muttering to the priest to get on with it.

The thought made her smile, but when she saw heads still turning, all in the same direction, she collected her wits and looked that way, too. Joy stirred at the sight of four horsemen galloping toward them from woods to the south.

Neighbor looked at neighbor.

As delight surged through her, Sorcha glanced at Adela, expecting to see her own joy reflected in her sister, but although Adela clearly saw the riders, she showed no sign of delight. Doubtless she was stunned.

Hearing more than one gasp from the gathering, Sorcha grinned. Her neighbors and friends, she knew, would talk of this day for years.

But the riders were coming too fast for safety. Was their leader mad, or just drunk on the hope that he was not too late?

Villagers scattered as the riders bore down on the kirk steps.

Sorcha moved, but she saw that Adela stayed where she was, mouth agape.

Ardelve put his hands on his hips and glowered, but he did not move either. Sorcha decided that he thought no more of the interruption than that tardy wedding guests were making a scene.

Turning back, she saw that all four riders wore masks.

Prickling unease stirred.

Three of the men reined their horses in near villagers, making the animals rear and forcing folks back even farther.

As they did, the leader urged his horse right up the two steps.

Still smiling, Sorcha saw that he had eyes only for Adela, who moved toward him as if she expected him to speak to her.

Instead, he leaned near, stretched out an arm, and as if she weighed no more than a feather pillow, swept her up, and wheeled his mount away from the steps.

Astonished at such a show of strength, Sorcha let her mouth fall open.

One or two people in the crowd cheered, but most looked stupefied as the four horsemen rode off with their prize.

Kildonan, the Isle of Eigg, April 16, 1380

Sorcha had never set foot on the Isle of Eigg before, although she had passed it numerous times, because it lay only thirty miles from her home and just west of the route they followed from Glenelg to the Isle of Mull, where her sister Cristina lived. Moreover, their sister Isobel had lived with Cristina and her husband for years before Isobel’s marriage the previous summer to Sir Michael Sinclair.

Sorcha had not seen Isobel or Cristina since. She had planned to visit both the previous fall, but winter had swept into the Highlands and Isles earlier than expected, making travel difficult by land to Isobel’s new home at Roslin Castle south of Edinburgh, or by water to Cristina’s on the Isle of Mull.

Therefore, she had not seen Isobel since the previous summer or Cristina for nearly two years. So she eagerly looked forward to seeing both at the upcoming ceremony, because much had happened in the meantime.

Not only had Isobel married Sir Michael, younger brother of the new Prince of Orkney, but John of Isla, the first man known as MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, had died two months before. His burial on the Holy Isle of Iona had come shortly afterward. And since his death, despite his own careful arrangements for the succession, the Kingdom of the Isles had lacked a ruler, because not everyone had agreed with MacDonald as to which of his sons should succeed him.

The judgment and necessary arrangements now made, his eldest son, Ranald of the Isles, had commanded this meeting at Kildonan on Eigg, once a base from which, according to her aunt Euphemia, aristocratic Norse settlers who had replaced the Viking raiders had traded with Iceland and points beyond. Today at high noon, Islesmen would inaugurate their new MacDonald at Kildonan.

Everyone who could manage to witness the grand event would attend, and Sorcha was looking forward to reuniting with many kinsmen besides her sisters. Most eagerly did she look forward to seeing Adela and learning whether she and Sir Hugo had married. If not, she hoped they had made arrangements to do so soon. To protect Adela’s reputation, they must wed as quickly as possible.

As Macleod’s oarsmen rowed his two longboats into the U-shaped harbor at the southeastern end of Eigg and approached the long pier, both helmsmen shouted as one, “Way enough,” to stop their boats and allow three others to offload passengers and portions of their crews. Later arrivals would anchor a short distance offshore near the long, low islet known as Green Island. Other boats already crowded nearby beaches, and towboats scurried back and forth, carrying crews who had anchored their boats offshore to a landing at the head of the harbor.

As Sorcha’s boat awaited its turn, she gazed at the high promontory to her right where the ceremony would take place near the ancient chapel of Kildonan. The chapel was all that remained of an important monastery founded by Donan, the Irish missionary who introduced Christianity to the island. According to seanachies’ tales, Donan, having incurred the wrath of the local queen, was martyred there with his entire monastic community in the year 617. Today’s occasion, Sorcha mused, would doubtless be more felicitous.

Already an increasing crowd of Islesmen with their families congregated on the hilltop, and lines of people hurried up from the harbor to join them, like an army of ants swarming an anthill. Colorful banners flew from a great tent near the chapel.

Beside her, Sidony said, “Everyone looks so splendid, Sorcha. ’Tis sure to be a grand day, but I thought events as important as this one all had to take place on the Isle of Isla, at Finlaggan.”

“Were you not paying heed when our father explained that?” Sorcha demanded, giving her a stern look. “How do you expect to understand what goes on around you if you do not listen?”

“I do listen,” Sidony said. “But I am not as interested in political matters as you and Isobel are.” She nibbled her lower lip, making Sorcha sorry for scolding her.

“I know you do not care about such things,” she said with a sigh. “But I do not know how you can manage to sit at the table whilst we discuss them and not come to understand at least matters as important as this is.”

“I don’t like bickering,” Sidony said, clearly having given the matter some thought. “Such topics nearly always lead to discord, do they not? Why, when Isobel was home last summer, before she met Sir Michael—or do I call him something else now that his brother is a prince?”

“He is your brother now,” Sorcha said. “You may call him Michael.”

“Father would not agree, especially since his brother is Prince of Orkney and I do not know either of them,” Sidony protested. “Indeed, I have never even met them yet. Neither have you, come to that.”

“That will change today,” Sorcha said. “I am sure Michael will be here, and I intend to call him Michael. I call Hector the Ferocious plain Hector, after all, and he, too, is only a brother by marriage. If he lets us treat him as we would our own brothers if we had any, who is Michael Sinclair to forbid it?”

“You did not answer my question,” Sidony said quietly.

“Your question? Oh, yes, as to why we are not at Finlaggan. Well, you have only yourself to blame if I have not. You diverted me by speaking of Michael.”

“I still want to know.”

“’Tis because the Kingdom of the Isles has grown so much larger,” Sorcha said. “And because most of the newer bits of it lie to the north.”

“The Kingdom of the Isles has always seemed vast to me.”

“Aye, well, the Lordship now extends more than two hundred miles, from the Butt of Lewis in the north to the Mull of Kintyre in the south. So, although Finlaggan was at the center of things to begin with, it no longer is. And by ancient Celtic law and custom, every subject of the Kingdom of the Isles must have an equal chance of personally witnessing the inauguration of any new sovereign, just as each one must be able to attend any Council of the Isles. Isla lies too far south of the kingdom’s center now to allow such equality of opportunity to be practicable. Father said many folks complained of the difficulty when last year’s Council met at Finlaggan, so Lord Ranald selected the Isle of Eigg for today’s ceremony. Not only is it now at the center of the Lordship, but Eigg belongs to Ranald, so he can more easily control what happens here.”

“I wish you would always explain such things so clearly,” Sidony said. “Oh, good, we are moving again!”

Their boat followed their father’s, and both young women fell silent as they approached the long pier, looking for familiar faces.

When the nearside oars flashed up and their boat eased gently into place behind Macleod’s, men on the pier caught the ropes flung to them and made them fast, then hurried to help passengers from both boats alight onto the pier.

Sorcha and Sidony began meeting friends and kinsmen at once. As they made their way up the hill to Kildonan, greeting, hugging, and chatting, Sorcha kept watch for her older sisters and their husbands, particularly for Isobel and her Michael. She had deduced one pertinent fact from Isobel’s frequent messages, as well as from two single-page letters that she had written them, thanks to a gift from her husband of some fine writing paper from Italy. That fact was that wherever one found Sir Michael Sinclair of Roslin, one nearly always found his cousin, close friend, and boon companion, Sir Hugo Robison. And where one found Sir Hugo—today, at least—one was bound to find Adela.

Sorcha had much to say to both of them about courtesy and family duty. Disappearing into the woods two days before, depriving the village of any wedding, and afterward not letting everyone know that Adela was safe was outrageous behavior. She had every intention of telling them exactly what she thought of that behavior just as soon as she clapped eyes on them.

“There’s Isobel!” Sidony exclaimed, adding on a note of astonishment, “Faith, I knew she was increasing, but she’s enormous!”

“Aye, well, it happens,” Sorcha said. “Her babe is due next month, I believe.”

“I hope we are still with her when it comes,” Sidony said.

Sorcha, too, was looking forward to welcoming a new child into the family, but she did not say so because she had seen two tall men walk up behind Isobel, and one of them rested both hands possessively on her shoulders.

“That must be Michael or he would not dare take such a liberty,” she said. “I warrant the fellow with him must be Sir Hugo, but where is Adela?”

“I don’t see her,” Sidony said. “Where can she be?”

Aware of a sudden chill, Sorcha hurried forward, keeping her eyes on Sir Hugo—if the tall, handsome man by Michael Sinclair was in fact he.

He was even taller than Michael. His light-brown hair danced with red-gold highlights, and as she drew near, she saw that his eyes were the cerulean blue of a clear Scottish sky. Adela had said he was good-looking, but she had not mentioned his size, the breadth of his shoulders, or that he walked as if he ruled the world.

Isobel had seen her and was waving. Nearby Sorcha saw her eldest sister Cristina and Mairi of the Isles, Cristina’s sister by marriage. The new Lord of the Isles was Mairi’s younger brother, Donald of Isla.

With her shiny black hair and deep blue eyes, Mairi stood out in any gathering. Even approaching her thirtieth year, she retained her beauty. But the Macleod sisters could hold their own, and Sorcha thought the contrast between Mairi’s raven tresses and Cristina’s golden ones made a pleasing picture.

Rushing forward to hug all three women, she looked expectantly at Sir Michael and said, “You must be my new brother, sir. I am Sorcha Macleod.”

“I had deduced as much, my lady,” he said with a twinkle as he bent to kiss her cheek. “This must be the lady Sidony with you.”

Sidony blushed but allowed him to kiss her cheek as well.

Impatiently, Sorcha looked at the other gentleman. Everyone else still chattered, and she heard Cristina ask a question but paid no heed. Still, as much as she wanted to know if the second man was Sir Hugo Robison, she knew better than to demand the name of any gentleman not yet properly presented to her.

He smiled at her then most impudently, and feeling fire surge to her cheeks, she glanced at Isobel.

Sir Michael, turning from his conversation with Sidony, said then with a gesture toward the man at his side, “But I must present to you both my cousin and closest friend, Sir Hugo Robison.”

Still with that impudent grin, Sir Hugo made his bow. As he straightened, he said with amusement, “Don’t stand too much on ceremony, Michael. Lady Sorcha has made it clear that she does not insist upon the finer points of courtesy.”

Sorcha said instantly, “If you refer to my having sent you that message instead of my father, you will at least agree that the situation was urgent, sir. Faith, I should think you would be thanking me. But where is Adela? I want to see her.”

He frowned, saying without a trace of humor, “Lady Adela married Baron Ardelve on Saturday, did she not? Where should she be, except with her husband?”

Excerpted from Lady's Choice , by Amanda Scott . Copyright (c) 2006 by Lynne Scott-Drennan. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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