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His Lady of Castlemora

By:Joanna Fulford

His Lady of Castlemora
Joanna Fulford

       Prologue


Isabelle threaded her way among the trees and came at length to the wall  at the far end of the orchard. It afforded a fair view of the wood and  the hills above Castlemora, though in truth it was not these she saw.  All she could think about was the last interview with her  mother-in-law...

'Had you fulfilled your wifely duty and produced an heir, you would have  retained your place among us. As it is, my son's death removes any  requirement for you to remain.'

Isabelle stared at her in stunned disbelief. Alistair Neil's demise in a  hunting accident had been shock enough, but this was beyond everything.  'But this is my home.'

If she hoped to appeal to Lady Gruoch's compassion the notion was wide  of the mark. The blue eyes regarding her now were cold, the stern face  pitiless.

'Not any longer. A barren wife has only one future open to her: to take the veil and disappear from the world of men.'

Isabelle's stomach knotted. 'It is not my fault that I am childless. My late husband must share the responsibility for that.'

The furrows in Gruoch's brow deepened. 'How dare you attempt to cover  your own failings by besmirching the name of the dead? My son was eager  for an heir. I have good reason to know that he never neglected his duty  to you.'

Isabelle's hands clenched at her sides. So they had discussed this  behind her back. She could well imagine what spiteful and lying tales  her late husband had told to cover his own ineptitude. Mortification  vied with anger.

'Since he was assiduous in undertaking his part,' Gruoch continued, 'it  is only reasonable to expect that you should have done yours.'

Isabelle bit back the heated reply that leapt to her tongue. Alistair  was dead; what use to recount the embarrassed fumbling that had blighted  the marriage bed in the early part of their relationship; fumbling that  became frustration and, eventually, violence when he took out his  failure on her?

Seeing her hesitation Gruoch nodded. 'I note that you do not deny it.  The shame is doubly yours. You were married a year. Any self-respecting  wife would have a babe in arms and another in her belly by now.'

'I wanted that as much as my husband did. How can you doubt it?'

'It may be so. However, that does not alter the fact of your failure as a  woman and as a wife. You will go back to your father and he may dispose  of you as he sees fit. If he has any sense he will place you in a  convent as soon as possible.'

Isabelle didn't care to think about her father's response to this  development. Quite apart from the insult, her return would be a burden  that he would scarcely welcome. Nevertheless, it would have to be faced.  Knowing that further argument was useless, she lifted her chin. 'In  that case I demand that my dowry be returned to me.'

'You are in no position to make demands. It is our family that has been  wronged. We made a bargain in good faith and we were cheated.'

'This isn't just.'

'Do not speak to me of justice.'

The words created the first fluttering of panic. 'Keep part if you will, but return the rest.'

'We will keep what is ours.'

Isabelle swallowed hard. With no dowry, and a reputation as a barren  woman, she would have no chance of remarriage. Sick with repressed shame  and fury she made a last desperate attempt.

'It is not yours to keep. The Neils have wealth enough; they have no need of more.'

'Do not presume to tell the Neils what they need.' Gruoch's voice grew  quieter. 'You may count yourself fortunate to leave here at all, my  girl. There are those at Dunkeld who favoured a quicker and neater end  to the embarrassment you represent.'

Isabelle experienced a sudden inner chill. When first she came to her  husband's home she was accorded courtesy, albeit not warmth. Her new kin  were not given to displays of affection. However, as time went on and  she failed to conceive a child, their attitude changed until their scorn  was scarcely veiled. The thought that they might do her physical hurt  had not occurred, until now.

'Would the Neils risk incurring the wrath of Castlemora?' she demanded. 'My father would not let such a deed go un-avenged.'                       
       
           



       

Gruoch's lips tightened to a thin line. 'We have no fear of Castlemora.'

'You would be wiser if you had.'

For all that the words were defiant Isabelle knew they were futile. In  this argument all the weight was on the other side of the balance.

Gruoch's lip curled. 'We are content to put it to the test. You leave first thing in the morning.'

And so she had, under the disdainful gaze of her erstwhile kin. The  recollection was bitter. All the high hopes she'd set out with at the  start of her marriage were ashes, and her pride lay among them. At the  same time it was hard to regret leaving a place where she was so little  valued or wanted. The trouble was that she couldn't imagine how the  situation was going to change in the foreseeable future. Unwilling to  let the Neils see any tears she contrived to put a brave face on it.

She'd worn a brave face when eventually she had to confront her father.  Archibald Graham was fifty years old. Formerly a strong and active man  his health had failed in his later years until even small exertions  tired him and any significant effort brought on the pains in his chest.  However, his grey eyes were bright and shrewd, his mind as sharp as it  had ever been. He made no attempt to hide his anger and disappointment.  When he learned that they had refused to return her dowry his wrath  increased tenfold.

'Those scurvy, double-dealing Neils are no better than thieves.'

Her brother growled agreement. At sixteen Hugh was grown to manhood and,  as the only surviving son, was now the heir. He also possessed a keen  sense of what was due to kin.

'This is an insult to our entire family. It should be avenged. Let me take a force to Dunkeld and burn out that nest of rats.'

'The rats are numerous and strong, boy. We'll bide our time.'

'You mean we're to swallow this outrage?'

'This outrage will not be swallowed or forgotten, I promise you.' Graham  paused. 'However, revenge is a dish best tasted cold. If you're to be  laird one day you need to remember that.'

Hugh nodded slowly. 'I'll remember.' He turned to Isabelle. 'You're well rid of the scum, Belle.'

That much was true, but it didn't change the fact that she was now a  dowerless widow. It hung there, unsaid, like the subject of her alleged  barrenness. Her brother was fond of her and would never throw such an  accusation in her face, but it wasn't going to go away...

Being thus lost in gloomy reflection, she was unaware of the approaching figure until she heard him speak.

'Well met, Lady Isabelle.'

Recognising the voice she turned quickly. 'Murdo.'

The master-at-arms was standing just feet away. She eyed him uneasily,  repressing a shiver. The black-clad figure was entirely shaven-headed. A  scar seamed the left side of his face from cheek bone to chin, though  it was partially hidden by a beard close-trimmed and dark as night, as  dark as the predatory gaze watching her now. He reminded her of nothing  so much as a hunting wolf, lean, powerful and dangerous. A strong odour  of stale sweat enhanced the impression of lupine rankness.

He bared his teeth in a smile. 'I thought I might find you here.'

Suddenly she was aware that the orchard was some way from the house and  that it was entirely private. Apprehension prickled. Unwilling to let  him see it she remained quite still and forced herself to meet his gaze.

'What do you want?'

'To speak with you, my lady.'

'Very well, what is it you wish to speak about?'

'The future.'

The knot of apprehension tightened a degree. 'What of it?'

'Your honoured father is a sick man. He cannot live long. That must weigh upon your mind.'

'It does,' she replied, 'but you did not come here to tell me that.'

'When he dies you will need a strong protector, Isabelle.'

She knew what was coming now and sought desperately for the means to evade it. 'My brother will protect me.'

'A new husband would perform the role better.' His expression became intent. 'I would be that man.'

Isabelle's stomach wallowed but she knew better than to anger him deliberately. 'What you are asking is not possible, Murdo.'                       
       
           



       

'Why not?' He held her gaze. 'Who better than me? I may be a younger son  but I come of good family. I have risen to my present rank on merit and  served your father well. Thanks to my efforts Castlemora is strong and  feared.' He paused. 'And you cannot be entirely unaware of my feelings  for you.'

'I regret that I cannot return them.'

'Not yet, but you might come to return them, in time.'

She shook her head. 'I will never feel about you that way.'

'You say so now but I know how to be patient.'

'Time will not change this. Do not hold out hopes of me.'

'If not me, who else, Isabelle? You are no longer the prize you once were, only a widow returned in disgrace to her father.'

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