A toast to the duke of Claymore and his bride!"
Under normal circumstances, this call for a wedding toast would have caused the lavishly dressed ladies and gentlemen assembled in the great hall at Merrick castle to smile and cheer. Goblets of wine would have been raised and more toasts offered in celebration of a grand and noble wedding such as the one which was about to take place here in the south of Scotland.
But not today. Not at this wedding.
At this wedding, no one cheered and no one raised a goblet. At this wedding, everyone was watching everyone else, and everyone was tense. The bride's family was tense. The groom's family was tense. The guests and the servants and the hounds in the hall were tense. Even the first earl of Merrick, whose portrait hung above the fireplace, looked tense.
"A toast to the duke of Claymore and his bride," the groom's brother pronounced again, his voice like a thunderclap in the unnatural, tomblike silence of the crowded hall. "May they enjoy a long and fruitful life together."
Normally, that ancient toast brings about a predictable reaction: The groom always smiles proudly because he's convinced he's accomplished something quite wonderful. The bride smiles because she's been able to convince him of it. The guests smile because, amongst the nobility, a marriage connotes the linking of two important families and two large fortunes—which in itself is cause for great celebration and abnormal gaiety.
But not today. Not on this fourteenth day of October, 1497.
Having made the toast, the groom's brother raised his goblet and smiled grimly at the groom. The groom's friends raised their goblets and smiled fixedly at the bride's family. The bride's family raised their goblets and smiled frigidly at each other. The groom, who alone seemed to be immune to the hostility in the hall, raised his goblet and smiled calmly at his bride, but the smile did not reach his eyes.
The bride did not bother to smile at anyone. She looked furious and mutinous.
In truth, Jennifer was so frantic she scarcely knew anyone was there. At the moment, every fiber of her being was concentrating on a last-minute, desperate appeal to God, Who out of lack of attention or lack of interest, had let her come to this sorry pass. "Lord," she cried silently, swallowing the lump of terror swelling in her throat, "if You're going to do something to stop this marriage, You're going to have to do it quickly, or in five minutes 'twill be too late! Surely, I deserve something better than this forced marriage to a man who stole my virginity! I didn't just hand it over to him, You know!"
Realizing the folly of reprimanding the Almighty, she hastily switched to pleading: "Haven't I always tried to serve You well?" she whispered silently. "Haven't I always obeyed You?"
"NOT ALWAYS, JENNIFER," God's voice thundered in her mind.
"Nearly always," Jennifer amended frantically. "I attended mass every day, except when I was ill, which was seldom, and I said my prayers every morning and every evening. Nearly every evening," she amended hastily Before her conscience could contradict her again, "except when I fell asleep before I was finished. And I tried, I truly tried to be all that the good sisters at the abbey wanted me to be. You know how hard I've tried! Lord," she finished desperately, "if you'll just help me escape from this, I'll never be willful or impulsive again."
"THAT I DO NOT BELIEVE, JENNIFER," God boomed dubiously.
"Nay, I swear it," she earnestly replied, trying to strike a bargain. "I'll do anything You want, I'll go straight back to the abbey and devote my life to prayer and—"
"The marriage contracts have been duly signed. Bring in the priest," Lord Balfour commanded, and Jennifer's breath came in wild, panicked gasps, all thoughts of potential sacrifices fleeing from her mind. "God," she silently pleaded, "why are You doing this to me? You aren't going to let this happen to me, are You?"
Silence fell over the great hall as the doors were flung open.
"YES, JENNIFER, I AM."
The crowd parted automatically to admit the priest, and Jennifer felt as if her life were ending. Her groom stepped into position beside her, and Jennifer jerked an inch away, her stomach churning with resentment and humiliation at having to endure his nearness. If only she had known how one heedless act could end in disaster and disgrace. If only she hadn't been so impulsive and reckless!
Closing her eyes, Jennifer shut out the hostile faces of the English and the murderous faces of her Scots kinsmen, and in her heart she faced the wrenching truth: Impulsiveness and recklessness, her two greatest faults, had brought her to this dire end—the same two character flaws that had led her to commit all of her most disastrous follies. Those two flaws, combined with a desperate yearning to make her father love her, as he loved his stepsons, were responsible for the debacle she'd made of her life:
When she was fifteen, those were the things that had led her to try to avenge herself against her sly, spiteful stepbrother in what had seemed a right and honorable way—which was to secretly don Merrick armor and then ride against him, fairly, in the lists. That magnificent folly had gained her a sound thrashing from her father right there on the field of honor—and only a tiny bit of satisfaction from having knocked her wicked stepbrother clean off his horse!
The year before, those same traits had caused her to behave in such a way that old Lord Balder withdrew his request for her hand, and in doing so destroyed her father's cherished dream of joining the two families. And those things, in turn, were what got her banished to the abbey at Belkirk, where, seven weeks ago, she'd become easy prey for the Black Wolf's marauding army.
And now, because of all that, she was forced to wed her enemy; a brutal English warrior whose armies had oppressed her country, a man who had captured her, held her prisoner, taken her virginity, and destroyed her reputation.
But it was too late for prayers and promises now. Her fate had been sealed from the moment, seven weeks ago, when she'd been dumped at the feet of the arrogant beast beside her, trussed up like a feastday partridge.
Jennifer swallowed. No, before that—she'd veered down this path to disaster earlier that same day when she'd refused to heed the warnings that the Black Wolf's armies were nearby.
But why should she have believed it, Jennifer cried in her own defense. "The Wolf is marching on us!" had been a terrified call of doom issued almost weekly throughout the last five years. But on that day, seven weeks ago, it had been woefully true.
The crowd in the hall stirred restlessly, looking about for a sign of the priest, but Jennifer was lost in her memories of that day…