Highlander’s Forbidden Lass (Preview)
The sound of a heavy wooden door banging against a solid stone wall echoed through the massive halls of Inveraray Castle. It was a beautiful place, almost out of a fairytale, with twin towers at the front and back corners of the edifice and a massive face three stories tall before an even more elevated center. The castle of Clan Campbell was one of the most beautiful in Scotland.
Following the thunderous bang of the door, there came the quick shuffle of feet and the rustle of skirts along with it. Lady Claire Campbell stopped short when she looked upon her daughter standing before her; her dark curls askew, sweat glistening along her hairline, her pale face flushed pink, and a wide smear of blood across her cheek.
Lady Claire shrieked in horror and panic as she rushed to the young woman. “Madeleine! Oh, my lass! What happened to ye? Are ye hurt badly?”
The thud of heavy footsteps followed the woman’s scream, and in moments Laird David Campbell was standing near his wife, taking in the state of his daughter. “What in the name of all that is holy has happened?” He demanded, his eyes wide as he held his hands out toward Madeleine.
Madeleine raised up the pheasants she had shot. “I was out huntin’. I’ve brought these back.”
Laird Campbell’s eyes bore into those of his daughter. He was a big man, with the same dark hair as hers, and the same stubbornness and strength, though much of the physical resemblance stopped there. “The blood on yer face and yer skirts is no’ from hunting. What happened to ye?” he insisted. “Are ye hurt?”
Madeleine sighed, knowing that her parents would not be pleased with the truth. “Oh, I’m fine,” she began matter-of-factly. “It’s no’ my blood. I should have washed me’self better.”
Laird Campbell furrowed his brow as his gaze grew keener. “Whose blood is it then?”
“I was set upon…,” she told them, her tone little more than explanatory, “attacked by two men of Clan Arthur. They wanted a bit o’ me, but I took a bit o’ them instead.”
The Laird closed his eyes and exhaled heavily. “Clan Arthur,” he said quietly. When he opened his eyes again, there was sorrow in them. “Things have been so tense with them lately. I have been trying to broker peace with them.” He eyed his daughter curiously. “How badly did ye wound them? Or did ye kill them?”
Madeleine rolled her eyes. “They’re no’ dead, though maybe they should be. I only wounded them a bit.”
Lady Claire stared in utter disbelief at her daughter. “Ye… ye wounded them? What does that mean?”
A smirk played over the young woman’s face. “Oh, they’ll live. They will no’ be havin’ bairns, but they’ll live.”
Laird Campbell shook his head. “This isnae good. Things will be more difficult between us now.”
Madeleine shot her father a dark look. “They would have been worse for me if I had no’ defended me’self!”
The Laird nodded and opened his arms out to her, and she went into them. “Aye, I’m sure they would have been. I’m glad ye can defend yerself. I just wish it had no’ happened at all, especially with them. Things have been g’tting worse of late. They are pushing further into our lands, past our old boundary, killing farm animals, burning crops, injuring and killing our clanspeople. It seems that they want more, and they are willing to take it by force. I have wanted tae keep a peace between them and us, so we have only defended, and no’ sought any attack against them, but they keep coming. I’m afraid it’s going tae come tae a head. I am glad that ye were no’ hurt today. That would have been a breaking point for me.”
“I ken how to defend me’self because ye taught me tae.” She hugged him warmly and smiled up at him.
“What are we goin’ to dae with ye?” Her father let out a long breath.
Lady Claire was still staring at Madeleine. She’d barely said anything up to that moment, but in an instant, with wide green eyes, she grabbed at her fanciful skirts and yanked them upward slightly, just over her feet. “I’ll tell ye what we’re goin’ to do! I’m writing tae my sister in France, and I am going tae send ye tae her! We can no’ seem to make a lady of ye here, but mayhap, if I send ye there, she can right these wrongs and get ye married to a French nobleman! Perhaps then ye’ll settle down like ye should!”
“Mother no!” Madeleine protested vehemently, but Lady Claire raised one hand and held it up between them.
Laird Campbell frowned. “Why should she be wed to a French nobleman when she could have a Scotsman?”
Lady Claire was resolute. “There have been a few Scottish lairds who have been interested in her, but she has no’ wanted them!”
Madeleine crossed her arms over her chest as her eyes darkened. “I didn’a like any o’ them!”
Her mother glared at her. “Marriage is no’ always about love! I am sending ye to France so that ye will be away from the danger here, and so that ye can find a match with a nobleman who will bring ye great wealth. The partnership of a man with considerable more power than many of our own Scots here, and havin’ his support, would be a boon to our clan! Noblemen have access to armies, and if these skirmishes grow worse with clan Arthur, we would be able to better defend ourselves if ye were married tae a nobleman! This is about ye rising up in your station and in the ranks of society. ‘Tis about making the most of your opportunities and those of your family. ‘Tis about keeping ye out of so much danger and trouble! I want the best for ye and this is the way to dae it! Ye must marry upward.”
“But I dinna want to go to France! This is my home!” Madeleine insisted as ire burned deeply within her. “I am no’ a horse to be bred to the finest stud ye can find!”
“This is no’ up for discussion! Ye are a lady, and ye’ll go and learn to be one, and ye’ll go soon! No more of this!” With that, Lady Claire held fast to her skirts and sashayed straight up the stairs in complete determination.
“Father!” Madeleine spun on her heel and pleaded with him.
Laird Campbell bit his lower lip a moment and lowered his eyes sympathetically to her. “I’m sorry my dear, but I dinna think there’s anything I can dae to stop her.”
“I dinna want to go to Aunt Margaret’s!” Madeleine insisted stubbornly.
Her father shrugged. “Yer mother obviously has her mind set. Perhaps ye could make the most of it. ‘Tis better weather, and Margaret is a braw woman. She’ll take fine care o’ ye. She has a bonnie home, and it would be a new experience for ye. Spread yer wings a bit and see some of the world. That would no’ be so bad, would it? Be wild and free beyond these lands?”
Madeleine pouted angrily, but she considered it. “I have wanted tae see Paris,” she admitted quietly.
“Make the most of this opportunity, Maddie,” her father encouraged her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
“I’ll make the most of the journey and the experience, but dinna expect me to tie me’self down to a husband!” She looked up smartly at him. “I’ve got a home here that I’m comin’ back tae.”
The evening before Madeleine’s departure, she was carefully packing her traveling trunk when a knock sounded at the door to her chamber. A moment later, a beautiful face appeared from behind it. The girl, just a little younger than Madeleine, came into the room and walked over to the trunk, running a few fingers along the edge of it. Long waves of golden blonde hair lay over her shoulders and down her back to her waist. Her eyes were blue, and usually she wore a big, bright smile, but not on this night.
“Maddie, can’t ye make up with mother so that she let’s ye stay? I dinna want ye to go!” She pleaded with a sorrowful voice.
Madeleine sighed and shook her head. “I’ve tried. She will no’ relent. I’m so sorry, Fiona. She will no’ let me stay. I dae wish that ye were going with me, though. This would be a better journey if ye were on it with me.”
Fiona sat on her sister’s bed and watched Madeleine as she finished the last of her packing. “But, I am worried! If ye find a Frenchman to wed, ye will no’ likely be returning here to me! I fear that we will no’ live near each other, and ye and I will no’ get to see each other every day! I dinna want that to happen!”
Madeleine sighed and nodded. “Aye. Things are probably going to change quite a bit for us. Mother and aunt Margaret rarely see each other, but I know that they write letters to each other all the time to keep in touch. Dinna ye fash, I will write to ye, and ye can write to me, and that way we can still be connected.”
Fiona pouted and her shoulders slumped. “Can ye no’ marry a Scot? There are many who would have ye! I’ve no doubt!”
“I have ne’er met one that I liked. Mother would have me married to the wealthiest and highest ranked man of title that she could find, and if I did, I’d be sacrificing my dreams of marrying for love. She says marriage is more often an arrangement of benefit than one of love.” Madeleine spoke with a dejected tone, though she tried to hide it from her sister. “Maybe I just need to wrap my mind around being sold off instead of marrying for love, since she’s so set on finding me a husband now. I dinna even want one. I’d rather stay here with ye and go hunting and riding, and help father with the lairdship. That would be the life I would choose.”
She sat beside her younger sister on the bed and held her in an embrace. Fiona smiled a little. “Ye will get to be in France though, and that ‘tis a bright side of it. Aunt Margaret will take ye to balls hosted by the king, and ye will probably have lovely gowns and meet handsome men. I wish I could go and dae that!”
Madeleine laughed a little. “Aye, ye would certainly be better suited for it. Ye would love the world of ball gowns and parties. Perhaps when ‘tis your time to wed, mother will send ye to aunt Margaret.”
“What will happen to Bonnie if she does that?” Fiona asked worriedly about their much younger sister. “She’s but a wee thing! She’s just learning to ride!”
Madeleine looked thoughtfully at Fiona. “Ye will be with her as long as ye can be, and then we will visit her when we can, but I’m afraid unless mother has another wee one, she will be on her own for a time.”
Fiona fretted. “But ye and I, we are best friends! Who will Bonnie have?”
“Bonnie may find a best friend in one of the other children here at the castle; a servant’s child or a cousin, if one comes along. We dinna ken what will happen for her. She’s such a sweet, mild tempered girl. I’m sure she’ll be all right,” Madeleine comforted Fiona.
“She is, isn’t she?” Fiona laughed a little. “I am like mother, a fine lady with her proper ways, her lovely dresses, and her pretty hairstyles, and I am happy that way. Ye, ye are more like father, and I love ye for it. I think no one is as wonderful as ye, Madeleine. I admire you so much. Ye are brave and strong, resilient and clever. And fierce! Above all else, ye are fierce, in your love and loyalty, and in your spirit. Ye are so different from me.”
“We are different, and that’s a good thing!” Madeleine gazed at her younger sister. “Ye are sweet and thoughtful, ye can sing like and angel, and ye play the harp so well. I spend my time learning swordplay and archery so I can become the best in the clan at it. We all have different things that make us who we are. We will see what Bonnie likes best and who she is, whether we are with her or no’.”
“Aye. I suppose it must be the way of things. Ye will find a husband, and then I will, and Bonnie will be here with mother.” Fiona grew thoughtful and smiled in a dreamy way. “I hope someday I can wed a prince! Or if I canna, then perhaps a nobleman, like ye will. I want a fanciful, romantic wedding to a handsome and kind man, and then I can live a fine and pretty life as a wife and mother!”
Madeleine laughed. “Aye. That would be a good life for ye! No mere clansman for ye! Ye shall have a prince! I would rather avoid a wedding altogether. I am happy to live here, hunting and fishing, training in the use of weapons with our cousins, and helping father manage his duties as laird. I’ve been learning all that I can about his work and position. I’ve spent so much time learning about politics and business that I ne’er take a moment to think about men at all. I hardly notice them, and ne’er in a romantic way.”
Fiona gave her a teasing poke in the arm. “That has no’ stopped several of them from noticing ye! So many of them of have lost their hearts to ye!” She giggled, and her cheeks blushed pink.
Madeleine shrugged. “I ignored all of that. I dinna want romance. I wanted to remain friends with them, and so we have. All of the boys here who ye say have lost their hearts to me are still steadfast friends. We’ve kept those bonds strong.”
“Aye, but any one of them would wed ye in a moment if they thought ye would have them.” Fiona nudged her gently. “Then ye could stay.”
Madeleine shook her head. “I canna. Mother will no’ let me marry anyone here. I have to marry up. I am the eldest of her three daughters. I have to marry best, and then help ye and Bonnie find good husbands. None of the Scottish lairds have turned my head, so I guess ‘tis off to France with me. She is pleased about that, though. The men their have greater title and wealth and will make a better match for me than anyone here.”
Fiona gave her a wink. “Well try for the heart of a prince then, and I can marry his brother, and then we can always be together.” They both laughed and stayed at each other’s sides for the remainder of the night, talking until they slept. Fiona watched with sad tears when Madeleine left the next morning.
* * *
Madeleine stared out of the carriage window and wondered how her days of riding the hills and valleys of the Highlands, of hunting in the forests and fishing on the loch, could have come to such a sudden end. She could scarcely make herself believe that she was watching the French countryside roll by on the way to her mother’s sister’s home, bearing with her a letter from her mother to her aunt, pleading with Margaret to find a good husband for Madeleine and to make a fine lady out of her. Madeleine had the title of a lady, given to her by Mary, Queen of Scots, but she had never felt like a proper lady, and she had little interest at all in it.
Madeleine was still pondering over her jarring state of personal affairs when the carriage turned onto a lane and came to stop before a grand estate that looked just shy of befitting royalty. She stared open-mouthed for a moment out of the carriage window and managed to gather herself as the driver opened her door for her.
Margaret was her mother’s older sister, and Margaret had married a French duke many years before. He had been wealthy and held lands and titles, and when he died, Margaret had inherited all of it. Margaret had a son and a daughter, but they were married off and gone, and she lived alone in the big home, spending much of her time at the French royal court and with her friends. It was the furthest from any reality Madeleine had ever known.
With her heart pounding in her chest, Madeleine stepped down from the carriage and made herself take a deep breath. She stood tall and lifted her chin, knowing somehow that she should show no weakness or inhibition. At her father’s request, she was going to meet the challenge head on, as she did with every challenge, and she was going to master it, no matter what or who might come her way.
The house was surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens, all in bloom and radiant in the sunshine, and the floral scent that wafted in the air was a sweet perfume. Madeleine breathed it in and told herself that a place so charming couldn’t be so bad.
As she walked up a few steps to the promenade that led to the house, she saw that there was a flurry of activity at the entrance to the grand façade. The household staff lined up on either side of the walk, facing each other, as a stately and elegant looking woman came out of the home and stood before it with a wide smile on her face, her arms open wide.
“Madeleine, welcome to my home, mon cherie, how are you? How was your journey?”
Madeleine looked at her aunt with relief. She had faint memories of the woman, and though they were good, she’d had no real idea what to expect upon her arrival at the estate. Her aunt’s warm welcome lent her a sense of peace. “I… I’m good, thank ye. The journey was no’ too bad, either.”
Margaret laughed and grinned. “Oh, how I’ve missed hearing that accent! It reminds me of my childhood home. I’ve been in France so long that it’s a rare treat to hear it these days. Well, look at you! You’re so lovely! I don’t know how it can be possible that you’re not already married!”
“Ye look just as I remembered ye as a child. Ye came to visit us when I was eight or nine, I think.” Madeleine marveled at her aunt. Time seemed barely to have touched her.
Margaret beamed. “Oh, now that’s a sweet thing to say to an old lady like me! Merci! But come now, come in. You must be tired after your journey. I’ll show you to your room, and after you’ve rested, you can join me for tea and a meal in the dining hall.”
Margaret took Madeleine by the arm and led her into the home while her things were brought in behind them. They went to a large and beautiful chamber overlooking a particularly pretty rose garden, and Madeleine could see a pond in the distance, dotted with white and black swans, and ducks. Her aunt made sure that she had everything that she needed and then left her in peace.
Madeleine stared around her new room. She was surprised at the amount of light in it; it had more windows than she was used to seeing in any building, as well as a large fireplace, and a large, luxurious bed, twice the size of her bed at home in Scotland. There were tapestries hanging on the walls and various pieces of elegant furniture throughout the room, from tables and chairs to a chaise lounge near one of the windows. It was more foreign to Madeleine than any place she had ever seen or been in, but it didn’t frighten her. She was fascinated by it, intrigued with the architecture and style of the place, and she began to wonder even more what her time there would be like.
She rested a short while and then tidied herself up from her journey, going in to meet her aunt later that afternoon. There was a large meal set out of meats and breads, fruits, cakes, and tea. Madeleine sat with her aunt, and as they ate, they talked and got to know one another as adults. All the while, Margaret watched Madeleine, seeming to take in everything about her, and Madeleine knew in no time at all that her aunt was a sharp, wise, clever woman.
“I understand that you do no wish to find a husband while you are here, but your mother has made it very clear that she expects you to become a lady while you are with me, and to find a suitable husband.” Margaret chuckled softly, but her face was serious. “I will get to work on you, and you will let your Campbell stubbornness go while you are here, and if we do this together, we may have quite a bit of fun. We can make the most of it, and if you keep your mind open, you may discover that you like it.”
Margaret seemed certain that she knew just what she was doing, and Madeleine sighed, realizing that her aunt was right. Echoing the sentiments of her father, she might just have to give the whole endeavor an earnest try.
Margaret’s dressmaker came to make dresses for Madeleine, and while that was being done, Margaret showed her niece how to style her hair in the current fashions of the French court. As Madeleine learned, her aunt carefully instructed her in the proper etiquette, manners, and behaviors of court politics.
“French court is like a game of chess, and everyone is a player. Everyone has their own interests and agendas, and because of that, alliances are made, and sometimes that results in betrayals. There are some people who are loyal to others, but most often the people there are only interested in benefiting themselves, and they act accordingly. You will want to be careful who you make friends with. The young ladies might be after a suitor you like, or the men will be vying for your hand and attentions and cause trouble trying to win you over. You should be mindful of that, and you should also be aware that not all men have marriage in mind. Some men are only interested in a passing dalliance with a young lady, and you cannot allow something like that to happen, for it would ruin your chances of finding a good husband.”
Madeleine tried to conceive of it all in her mind. “It sounds like different world altogether.”
Her aunt raised her brows and nodded. “It is. I know the world you come from. I was a Scottish lass many years ago, but your grandmother sent me here for an arranged marriage, and it changed my life completely. I learned the ways of court early, and I know you will too. Mine was a good marriage. I loved my husband and the life that we shared here. I see no reason why you couldn’t find a wonderful man at court to be wed to.”
Madeleine frowned. “I dinna ken if the men here at court would want a girl like me. I am myself in the woods, or riding and hunting, or swimming in a loch, or roaming the hills freely. I can no’ see myself in fine dresses or attending balls. It does no’ seem like my kind of life. I dinna ken if I will fit into a world like that.”
Margaret pinned a few more curls of Madeleine’s hair in place and patted her shoulder. “You will do fine. You are beautiful and intelligent. You will fit right in, as long as you are careful about who you trust and who you spend time with. We mustn’t leave anything to chance. I’ll be helping you, so you won’t be navigating the deep waters of court alone. I know that you will do your best.”
“Aye, aunt, I will try.” Madeleine answered quietly.
Madeleine took it all in stride, knowing that though she might be stubborn and independent, if she was to be presented at the French royal court, she wanted to be at her best, if for no other reason than she was representing the Campbell clan on foreign soil, and her proud heritage and name must be upheld and honored above all else. For that reason alone, she allowed Margaret to do any and all things that might be needed to prepare her properly for when the day of presentation came.
As Madeleine was readied for her first trip to the court of King Charles IX, son of the formidable Catherine de Medici, she felt as if she wasn’t herself at all. She stood before a full-length mirror, gazing at a total stranger.
Her waist-length dark curls were pulled up and arranged beautifully at the back and top of her head, adorned with small jewels throughout, making her hair look like a starry night. Her face was touched delicately with makeup; just enough to bring some extra color to her full red lips, and her finely rounded cheeks. She wore a breathtaking gown designed in hues of blues and greens the shade of the sea, which brought out her emerald eyes and her porcelain skin. Her shoes were made to suit the gown she wore, and it felt to her as if she had to learn to walk all over again, having a fabricated heel on her shoe.
She stared at the unfamiliar young woman in the glass and wondered where her true self had gone and if there was any part of herself that she could show, or be genuine to, amongst the nobility of France.
“Feeling nervous?” Margaret asked, smiling over Madeleine’s shoulder and catching her eye in the mirror while giving her a last examination before they left for the castle.
“Yes. I dinna ken if I can dae this. I think I might be in over my head.” Madeleine tried to take a deep breath, but it found no place in her.
Margaret smiled and patted her hand as she took it. “You’ll be fine. You look divine, and if you just remember everything that I taught you, you’ll fit right in, and you may even have some fun.” Madeleine wasn’t sure if she believed her aunt, but she knew that tomorrow would still come, whether she had a successful day at court or not. She swallowed hard and determined to give it her very best, if only for her family back at home in Scotland and her aunt Margaret, who had worked so tirelessly to create the vision that Madeleine had become.
Margaret kissed her cheek lightly, and with that, they went out to the carriage and headed off to make Madeleine’s future.
It was all that Madeleine could do not to stare in amazement at the castle and all of the finery in it, or all of the people dressed so grandly in and amongst its halls. She said nothing as she stayed at her aunt’s side, nodding and smiling slightly at those they passed or people to whom she was introduced, all while sorely missing her rugged Highlands.
They’d been in the castle for fifteen minutes when Margaret turned an eye to Madeleine and gave her a knowing look. “How are you feeling?”
“Suffocated,” Madeleine answered honestly.
Margaret chuckled and patted her arm. “Well, if that’s the worst of it, then you’re doing fine. It can only get better from here. Now come along; you’ve only met some of my friends so far. Let’s get you in amongst some girls your own age. That will help put you at ease.”
Madeleine didn’t really spend time with girls her own age back on the Campbell lands at home. She was most often with her younger sister, Fiona, or her male cousins who ranged in age from slightly older than herself to little Bonnie’s tender age. Madeleine was certain that spending time with other girls her age at French court wouldn’t do much to assuage her consternation.
Margaret led her and introduced her to a group of young women. “These are the ladies Anne, Marie, Claudine, and Marguerite. Ladies, this is my niece, Lady Madeleine Campbell. She has come from Scotland to stay with me for a time. She is in need of some fine company and some assistance in getting to know the games of court here.” Margaret eyed all of the girls intently, and each of them smiled widely and gave their hands to Madeleine; they all knew right away that they were to take her into their circle, and they did.
“How lovely to meet you!” Marguerite said pleasantly. “We all loved your Queen Mary, but we were girls when she was here. That was seven years ago.”
“Thank ye, we love her too.” Madeleine smiled in return.
“I heard that her second husband just passed away in February. I’m so sorry.” Claudine gave Madeleine a sympathetic look. “It must be difficult to lose two husbands in so short a time.”
Madeleine nodded. “It must be.”
“How are you enjoying France?” Anne asked, her eyes shining with curiosity.
“It’s really beautiful. Much sunnier than ‘tis at home, and I’m enjoying it.” Madeleine felt their welcoming smiles begin to thaw the frozen nerves all over her body.
“What do you like to do for fun?” Claudine asked interestedly. She had an intelligent air about her that made Madeleine feel as if she was speaking to someone who never missed anything going on around her.
“Oh yes! Do you play any instruments? Do needlework? Do you sing? Oh, I love people who can sing beautifully!” Marie intoned dreamily, playing with the strands of pearls curved around her slender neck.
Madeleine felt her stomach tighten. “I… ehm… no, I dinna really dae anything like that. I prefer to go hunting and fishing. I’m no’ bad at archery, and I ken well how to use a sword.”
The four ladies before her blinked in astonishment.
“Do you really?” Marguerite asked in an awed hush. “Know how to use a sword I mean!”
Madeleine thought back to the two men by the creek who had attacked her, and the corners of her mouth turned upward. “I dae indeed.”
“You go hunting and fishing?” Anne asked as a grin widened over her face. “Just like the men?”
Madeleine nodded. “Quite often, to be truthful.”
“Oh, I could never do any of that!” Marie looked horrified at the very idea of it. She snapped open her folded handheld fan and waved some air over her face as she batted her eyes.
“I think it’s wonderful!” Claudine beamed as she slipped her arm through Madeleine’s, ignoring Marie’s dramatic response. “We don’t have any ladies here at court nearly as interesting as all that!”
“What brought you here to court?” Marie tilted her perfectly coiffed head slightly. She looked as polished as a woman could possibly be, and it was obvious that she enjoyed it.
“My mother sent me here to refine me into a lady,” Madeleine admitted somewhat grudgingly.
Claudine gave Madeleine a sidelong glance and a slightly coquettish smile. “And perhaps to find a suitable husband as well?”
Madeleine rolled her eyes. “Yes, I guess that, too. I’m no’ interested in finding one, though. I dinna ken why she thinks I need one!”
Marguerite gave her a knowing grin. “Well, there are several eligible men here, and there are also some who are married and are only looking for a liaison, so be careful. You don’t want your reputation ruined by the wrong man. We’ll be glad to help you.”
Madeleine wanted no help, and no husband, but she knew she shouldn’t say that. “Thank ye. I am grateful.”
Aunt Margaret approached the group of young ladies at that moment with a stately looking woman at her side. “Lady Madeleine Campbell, this is Her Royal Highness, the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici.”
Madeleine bowed low, and the queen mother eyed her with a half-smile. “You’re quite a charming young lady. Margaret is a dear friend of mine. I’m happy to welcome you here.”
“Thank ye, your royal highness.” Madeleine answered.
“Your aunt tells me that you are seeking a suitable husband. My son is hosting a celebration at the lake in two days. There will be many eligible men in attendance there, and perhaps you may find one to your liking. Do come.” Queen Catherine gave her a look that told Madeleine that it wasn’t a suggestion.
“Oh yes, of course. Thank ye, your royal highness.” Madeleine answered, feeling as if the voice was not her own at all. She wondered where the girl from the Highlands had gone, and who had taken her place and was standing there in strange shoes in front of the queen mother of France.
Margaret and Catherine left the young girls, and Madeleine’s new friends grew excited for her. “Oh! I’m so glad that you’ll be there with us! We’re all going!” Claudine gushed happily.
All of the other girls joined in talking about it with elation, and Madeleine felt as if she was living in a bizarre dream.
* * *
If Madeleine had felt out of place up to that point, it was fully eclipsed by her arrival at the royal celebration. The grounds around the lake were filled with nobles and esteemed guests. There were fire lights lit in so many places that the area fairly glowed. Musicians sent serene music out across the shimmering waters of the lake, and a big moon shone down upon it all.
Margaret had put Madeleine into an exquisite dress; one the likes of which she had never imagined. Her hair had been expertly styled, as well, and a bit of color added to her face. She felt overdone, but her aunt insisted that she would easily be the belle of the ball. Madeleine didn’t bother telling her aunt that she didn’t want to stand out in the crowd; she preferred, instead, to blend into the shadows, or even better yet, to vanish from the event altogether; but she let the point go because she knew that her mother and her aunt were bent on finding a suitable husband for her, and that meant that she had to be in the spotlight, at least until they all agreed on someone, or until they gave up on her, and she could be allowed to return to Scotland without a man at her side. It was a secret hope she harbored, and it brought her comfort in times when her obligations in France tried her soul.
Margaret stayed with Madeleine long enough for her to find her friends, and then she advised the girls to introduce Madeleine to the best available men in attendance. They promised that they would. Madeleine scowled privately and sighed. It was the last place she wanted to be, but there was no real way out of it for her.
“I know you aren’t interested in a husband, but don’t think on that,” Anne told her sympathetically. “Instead, let’s just have fun.”
“We will have to introduce her to a few men,” Marie pointed out. “I’m not failing Margaret MacLeod Deschamps!”
The other girls giggled and agreed, save for Madeleine who rolled her eyes.
The girls pointed men out to Madeleine as the evening began to get busy, and they discussed the merits of each one as they went along, decidedly favoring some over others. Marguerite stopped short as they were nearing the royal boats on the lake and gasped.
“Oh! He’s perfect! Look… that’s James II of Crussol! Oh, he’s ideal!” She looked as though a fire had been lit beneath her.
“Why is he perfect?” Madeleine asked, wondering if the other three girls would agree.
“He’s the Baron of Steel. He’s also wealthy, handsome, and as yet, unmarried.” Claudine answered knowingly.
“He’s a real catch!” Marie pointed out.
“He is. So many ladies are after him, but none more than Françoise Louise of Clermont. She desperately wants him!” Marguerite smiled, nodding subtly to a young blonde girl with pale skin and large blue eyes not far from the man. She was staring adoringly at him, and he seemed not to notice her at all. “But, I think he might like you instead.”
“Why is that?” Madeleine asked, her stomach feeling as if it had dropped to her feet.
“Because he keeps looking over here at you!” Anne gave Madeleine’s arm a squeeze.
“Ladies, I’m so sorry to interrupt, but I was compelled to come over and meet your lovely new friend,” a nasally voice sounded behind them, and all the ladies turned with a start.
They faced a tall, thin man with little more than wisps of graying hair atop his head and poor teeth in his mouth. He was dressed in lavish attire and held his chin up proudly. “I am Pierre Beaumont, at your service,” he announced. “And who might this enchanting creature be?”
Madeleine was certain she would either be sick or be forced to run as fast as she could. The man before her made her nauseous.
Anna cleared her throat and looked at Pierre directly. “This is Lady Madeleine Campbell of Scotland.”
Pierre’s old eyes twinkled. “Do me the honor of accompanying me on a stroll, Lady Madeleine,” he insisted, rather than asked. Madeleine’s friends gave her sympathetic glances. Madeleine felt as if she had no choice. Pierre held his arm out for her, and Madeleine took it as he walked with her away from the group.
“There’s a little rumor buzzing through the guests here tonight that you’re looking for a husband at court. Is that true?” He raised a bushy, graying brow at her and drew her closer to him. Every alarm in Madeleine was going off. She didn’t even want to be at Pierre’s side, let alone any closer to him than walking distance.
She thought fast. “Rumors can be started so innocently, and then get so out of hand.” She told herself that at least it wasn’t a lie. It was more of an evasive maneuver. Possible options for escape from the older man began to play themselves out in her mind.
Pierre paused in their casual stroll and faced Madeleine, giving her a hungry look. “If it is true, if you are looking for a husband, I could very well be tempted by you. My dear… you’d be quite a lovely little morsel to keep. I wonder if I might…” He leaned closer to her and his rank breath reeked all around his head. “…have a sample.”
Just as he was about to kiss her, and a second before she could back up, Madeleine felt a strong hand close around her waist. “There ye are my darling, I was wondering where ye might have gotten off to. I see that I can no’ leave ye alone for even a minute!”
Pierre and Madeleine both turned with surprise to the man standing beside her. He was just over six feet tall and seemed to be made of muscle on top of muscle over every inch of his body. His hair was as black as the night, slightly tousled and curled roguishly over his forehead, coming to his sky-blue eyes. His mouth formed a half-smile with a dimple in one cheek, and his squared jaw was set in determination.
Madeleine only froze for a split second, but the feel of his strong arm around her and his broad hand on her waist warmed her quite a bit, to her great surprise. His eyes locked on hers, and for an instant, everything within her felt as though it were not tethered to the ground at all, but instead floated freely through the expanse of the universe.
The man turned his intense gaze to Pierre then, and the older man seemed taken aback by it.
“Have a fine evening, Sir,” he intoned seriously.
Pierre nodded, unable to speak, and turned, leaving them alone. Madeleine gasped and faced the man beside her. She couldn’t even say that he was handsome; it was beyond that. He was beautiful. There was no other word for it.
“I’m sorry to step in so suddenly, but ye looked truly trapped.” He grinned at her, and she discovered that he actually had a dimple in each cheek.
“I… I was!” she stammered, trying to find her voice. “Thank ye! I haven’a been here at court verra long, and I wasn’a sure how to get out of it. If I was anywhere else, he’d never have gotten that close to me, but I’m at a loss here in this strange place.”
“I am pleased to help,” he replied pleasantly, gazing at her as if he was looking right through her. Her seeming transparency to him gave her a bit of unease.
“You’re Scottish?” she asked, knowing by his accent that he was.
“Aye, I am, and so are ye,” he answered, his hand still on her waist. He hadn’t taken it back when Pierre had left.
“I… I am.” She tried to recover herself, feeling somehow lost and found all at once. “I’m Lady Madeleine Campbell.” She managed a smile, and realized as she did it, that it was genuine. She’d been giving so many manufactured smiles to strangers that it felt unusual to offer a real one.
He raised a brow slightly, though his reaction was masked by a stoic face. “Campbell?”
“Yes. And ye are?” Curiosity bubbled through her mind.
He hesitated for a long moment, studying her face and her eyes. “Ye can call me Fyn.”
She felt as if the air had gone out of her lungs. “Well, Fyn. Thank ye for stepping in when ye did. ‘Tis certain ye saved my whole night.”
“Did I? Perhaps ye might gift me with a wee bit o’ it then.” His blue eyes twinkled as he took her hand in his and lifted it to his mouth, brushing his warm lips over the back of her fingers and lingering there a long moment as his eye held hers before he let her hand go.
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