“Lady Katherine, oh, Lady Katherine, there you are,” said an ashen faced chambermaid as she rushed into the kitchen. “You have to come quick. There are two Highlanders in the great hall with your uncle. Sir Ruthven bid me to fetch you there now.”
Hot, flushed, and certainly not prepared to receive visitors or face her uncle again so soon, Katherine sighed, saying, “You stay here. I’ll go to the great hall alone. It never pays to keep Uncle Ambrose waiting.” At the look of panic on the girl’s face, Katherine added, “I’m sure it’s nothing, don’t worry.”
Katherine froze when she saw at least a dozen rather imposing Highland warriors waiting in the courtyard. An even larger group of Ruthven soldiers kept their distance, observing the strangers cautiously. Knowing she’d pay for it later, she stepped back into the kitchen and asked Moyna to offer them food and ale. Then, fearing she had already kept her uncle waiting too long, she hurried into the great hall.
She entered with her head down. Sometimes a show of subservience tempered her uncle’s anger. He read from an unfurled scroll and didn’t acknowledge her immediately, so, with her eyes still downcast, she took a quick look to her right. Two sets of feet in the open leather shoes Highlanders wore caught her attention. Unbidden, her eyes followed the nearest thickly muscled bare legs up the length of the man’s tall, powerfully built body. He wore typical Highland clothing, a belted linen tunic that barely reached his knees, with a plaid fastened by a brooch around his massive shoulders. She had to tilt her head back to see his face. The grim expression he wore startled her. Clearly this man was not happy and she suspected Uncle Ambrose had something to do with it.
Katherine realized eventually that her uncle didn’t intend to acknowledge her. Unable to stand the tension any longer, she said, “Uncle Ambrose, you sent for me?” Chancing another quick glance at the Highlander she saw his grim expression replaced first by confusion, followed very quickly by anger.
Turning her attention back to Uncle Ambrose, his barely concealed glee worried her. Finally he answered her, “Yes, Katherine, my darling, we have received a missive from the king and it concerns you.”
This is definitely not good. She carefully kept her emotions masked. “Me?” she asked calmly.
“Yes, my sweet. This is Niall MacIan, Laird of Clan MacIan,” he said, gesturing to the angry warrior she had eyed, “and the commander of his guard, Diarmad. Our king has requested that you become Laird MacIan’s wife.” Katherine took a breath and, with supreme will, continued to appear calm and emotionless.
“Requested that I become his wife?” she asked slowly.
“Of course, my dear, it is a request.”
“I can decline this request?
“Of course you can, Katherine. However, His Majesty says if you choose to decline, it is in your best interest, and the best interests of Clan Ruthvan, for me to be named Lord Ruthvan and for you to enter the religious life.”
“And what happens to Cotharach and my people if I accept the proposal?” she asked, a note of panic creeping into her voice.
A look of smug satisfaction crossed her uncle’s face, and he spoke to her as if she were a very dull child.
“Oh, my dear, I have bungled this badly. I will start over and try to help you understand. His Majesty feels it is in the best interests of Clan Ruthvan for me to assume control as Lord Ruthvan and rule Cotharach. He is giving you two options. The one His Majesty prefers is for you to marry Laird MacIan and go with him to his home in the Highlands. As your husband, Laird MacIan will renounce his claim to your title and lands. In return, he will receive an exceedingly generous dowry. However, if this is not acceptable, you may choose to enter the religious life. The good sisters will receive a modest dowry, but His Majesty has determined that Laird MacIan will still receive the bulk of your dowry because of his willingness to aid his king in this matter. Does that make it clear, my dear?”
Katherine felt as if she had descended into swirling chaos and she trembled. Trying not to reveal her inner turmoil, which would add to his pleasure, she bowed her head and whispered, “Aye, uncle. I understand.”
After a moment, she looked directly into the eyes of each of the three men staring at her. In Uncle Ambrose’s expression she read joy, in Diarmad’s, pity, and in Laird MacIan’s, iron determination. She wanted to run—she needed to think.
Her uncle prodded, “Well, dear, which will it be?”
“You want a decision now? Am I to be given no time to consider this?”
In a colder, less unctuous voice, Uncle Ambrose said, “You must choose now. You can leave for the convent within the hour or, if you choose marriage, we will summon Father James and you can be married as soon as he arrives. Laird MacIan is anxious to return to the Highlands, so he wishes to depart immediately after exchanging wedding vows. Either way, you leave today.”
Katherine knew her uncle had won, she just didn’t know how he had done it. From the day her father died, Ambrose had wanted the title and lands that were to be held in reserve for her husband. How had this Highlander been convinced to marry her and relinquish all but a portion of her wealth? She didn’t relish either option. Finally she said flatly, “I will marry.”
“Very well, I will send for Father James.” As Katherine turned to leave, her uncle demanded, “Where are you going?”
She glanced down at the old gown she generally wore when working and realized the absurdity of this situation. She lifted her head, stared at her uncle, and said, “For the next few minutes at least, Uncle, I am Lady Katherine Ruthven. This is my keep. I am going to pack my things and dress for my wedding.”
She turned again to leave the great hall, and for the first time, she heard her betrothed’s voice, “Lass, one bag is all ye’ll be bringing.”