Lady Eleanor knows better than to dream of romance and love. Married twice to secure her father’s alliances, she has learned that she is desirable only for her fortune. When the Laird of Kinfairlie’s sisters ask her to wed their brother, Alexander, Eleanor agrees, expecting only to save herself from danger.
But Alexander is like no man she’s known before, a man more interested in courting her smile than her obedience, a man who values her counsel as much as her newly awakened passion…and a man unaware that Eleanor is the key to a fortune that could ensure the future of everything he holds dear.
Now, ruthless enemies will stop at nothing to secure Eleanor’s capture. Will she dare to trust her new husband before it’s too late for her, for Alexander, and for Kinfairlie?
“Delacroix provides an excellent end to a terrifically captivating series.”—Booklist
“The Snow White Bride is a gripping story with an emotionally wounded yet wonderfully strong heroine. What a passionate, romantic read!”—Vanessa Kelly, one of Booklist’s new stars of historical romance
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An Excerpt from The Snow White Bride:
Alexander was pleased to note how his sisters had brought greens into the hall, for he had been so immersed in his books that he had forgotten about this ritual. Hundreds of candles burned and the Yule log, a particularly massive specimen which would surely last for the entire fortnight, burned on the hearth. Mercifully, some soul had recalled this ritual, as well.
The hall was warm and golden, filled to bursting with trestle tables and chattering people. He could smell the roasted meat and the musicians led the assembly in a merry tune. His sisters were adorned in their best and laughing at the high table. Even the sight of the unbound tresses of his three maiden sisters failed to trouble him on this night.
Alexander might have paused there on the stairs to savor the sight, but to his surprise, the detection of his presence in his own hall was greeted with a rowdy cheer. The peasants of Kinfairlie rose to their feet, turned and lifted their cups of ale in salute. “My lord!” they cried as one.
They saluted him. Tears pricked Alexander’s eyes at this unexpected tribute. What had he done to deserve their respect? He had tried, to be sure, but the Fates had conspired against any success. Ever one for a jest, he turned and looked behind himself, summoning a hearty laugh from the assembly.
“God bless the Laird of Kinfairlie!” cried the miller, who had evidently been appointed spokesman. “The fairest laird that ever there was.” There was another ripple of laughter and the miller flushed. “I mean, of course, his courts are fair and justice is found in his courts.” The miller grinned. “Though my wife tells me that he is not hard upon the eyes either.”
The assembly laughed. “A wife is what our laird needs,” cried one bold soul.
“Nay, a dozen bairns is what he needs,” shouted another, but the miller held his hand up for silence.
He sobered as he held Alexander’s gaze. “It has been a year of challenges unexpected at Kinfairlie. Though none of us would have wished for the sudden loss of our former laird and his lady”—many in the company crossed themselves in reference to the deaths of Alexander’s parents—“I have been chosen of all of us to thank you for so boldly taking on your duties, sir.”
Alexander inclined his head. “I was raised to assume this duty, as well you know.”
The miller shook his head. “Few men could have faced this past year with such courage, my lord, no less with such grace and generosity. You serve your father’s memory well, Alexander Lammergeier, and may you prosper at Kinfairlie for years untold.” With that, the miller lifted his cup higher.
“Long live the Laird of Kinfairlie!” cried one soul and the company echoed the blessing. They lifted their cups in salute, then drank heartily.
Alexander was deeply touched, though he characteristically hid his response with a jest. “I thank you kindly,” he said, then bowed deeply to the company. “But you should know that I called for the wine to be opened before I knew you meant to greet me thus.”
The assembly laughed and the musicians sang a ditty on the merits of wine, a comparative rarity in these parts. Alexander made his way through the company, welcoming peasants by name and exchanging Christmas blessings. He found himself laughing at one tale and pinching a child’s plump cheek, enjoying himself despite the odds.
He glanced up, feeling the weight of someone’s gaze upon him, and met the steady stare of a woman he did not know. She must have been among the entourages of Madeline or Vivienne, perhaps a friend of one of his sisters. Alexander was intrigued by the very sight of her. She watched him from the high table, her eyes the clearest green he had ever seen.
But there was a sadness in her eyes and a downward curve to her lips that snared Alexander’s attention. She looked away as soon as their gazes met and eased herself into the shadows. She was veiled as a married woman, but no man attended her. Worse, she was not merry on this night of festivity, and Alexander decided then what his mission would be.
He would make this lady smile. Once, he had been good at coaxing women’s laughter. Once he had savored feminine companionship. His pulse quickened at the challenge, for he had not lingered overmuch with women this past year. It would be good to prove—if only to himself—that he had not sacrificed all of himself to his duties as laird.
The castellan brought him a goblet of ruby red wine, the man’s lips still taut. “I thank you, Anthony.” Alexander raised the cup to his guests assembled in Kinfairlie’s hall. “And I thank you not only for your kind salute, but for joining me on this night of nights. I bid you be merry in Kinfairlie’s hall, one and all, and may this Christmas Eve feast be but the first of many we share.”
The assembly roared agreement and raised their cups, then drank heartily of Alexander’s ale and wine. Alexander raised his cup to the beauteous lady at his board, who feigned ignorance of his salute. She sipped his toast and her cheeks pinkened slightly, though, which was progress of a kind.
Alexander Lammergeier would not be so easily defeated as that.
Indeed, he purposefully made his way to sit at her very side, not caring a whit for changing the arrangements Anthony had carefully made at the head table.
This lady’s smile would be won, regardless of the cost.
* * *
Eleanor was not a fickle woman, but a single glimpse of Alexander Lammergeier utterly changed her thinking. She had erred when she accepted the sisters’ offer. She merely spied the man in question and knew she could not wed him.
For the Laird of Kinfairlie was not what Eleanor had expected. She had assumed him to be a portly curmudgeon of an elder brother, perhaps one from an earlier marriage of the women’s father, a man vastly older and less eligible than his pretty sisters.
But Alexander possessed none of those traits. He was young, for one thing, a mere half dozen years older than herself. He was also cursedly handsome, which Eleanor distrusted to her very marrow, and worse, he was clearly aware of his own merit. Like Kinfairlie itself, he presented an allure that must be only skin deep. No man could be handsome and kind and unwed; no holding could be fully peaceful. Both laird and estate were illusions and thus untrustworthy.
Indeed, Alexander’s peasants held him in such uncommon regard that Eleanor concluded they feigned their affection. They must be fawning, out of fear of some caprice of his nature.
Further, there was no reason, from the look of him, the Laird of Kinfairlie would have any trouble finding a spouse for himself. What did his sisters know of him that Eleanor did not? She could imagine a thousand ugly liabilities.
Which particular weakness was his curse was not that important. She would break the wager, here and now, and seal her decision. She would leave Kinfairlie. No one would pursue her when there was a banquet to be savored in a warm hall.
“I have made my choice,” she whispered to Madeline, who regarded her with optimism. “I will not wed your brother.”
Madeline’s smile disappeared. “But you cannot do so!”
“I most certainly can.” Eleanor rose to her feet.
“At least remain for the meal,” Vivienne protested.
“But you know nothing of him,” Madeline said, sounding so pragmatic that Eleanor might have been persuaded under other circumstance. “At least, meet him before you decide.”
Eleanor shook her head and seized her cloak. “It was a poor idea, though well-intentioned,” she said, forcing a polite smile for the sisters. “I appreciate your courtesy and wish you both well.” She pivoted then, and would have fled, but Alexander himself stood directly before her.
He did not look inclined to move. He was a formidable obstacle, tall and broad as he was, though it was his charming smile that made Eleanor reluctant to show herself rude. She felt flushed and flustered beneath his attention, as he must know. “Surely you cannot depart when we have yet to be introduced?”
Had his sisters notified him of their scheme? Was she the one to be cornered into marriage, instead of Alexander? Terror claimed Eleanor that she was sought yet again for the wealth she might bring a spouse.
“I apologize for my haste but it is later than I had believed. I must leave immediately,” she said.
“Do you seek your spouse? We can send for him,” he said with a courtesy she did not trust.
“I have no spouse. I am widowed,” she said and made to step past him.
But Alexander claimed Eleanor’s elbow. She flinched at his touch, though his grip was gentle, and he lifted his hand away immediately. “I apologize. It is not my intent to harm you,” he said, his words so contrite that another woman might have believed him.
But Eleanor had heard such apologies before, and she had been trapped by ambitious men before. Her thoughts whirled. How could the sisters have known of her inheritance? She had not even told them her name. The news of a fortune to be won traveled on fleet feet, however, as Eleanor had learned.
Surely, even if Ewen’s kin had come this way while she slept in Kinfairlie’s chapel, they would never reveal the true reason they sought her? Her fortune could easily be claimed by any man with a prick and a barren left hand.
Eleanor did not know. She did not truly care. She felt hot and cornered beneath this man’s steady gaze, discomfited that he had noted her aversion to being touched. She wished to flee as far as she could.
“I thank you for your hospitality,” she said, hearing the fear in her own words. “But I must leave immediately.”
“Then I shall escort you to the stables,” Alexander said, in a tone that brooked no argument.
“You cannot leave before the meal is served,” Vivienne said.
“No one should journey on Christmas Eve!” Madeline protested.
“The lady shall do as she desires,” Alexander said with resolve, and Eleanor was surprised to have him defend her decision. He winked at her most unexpectedly and her heart skipped. When had a man ever flirted with her?
“And I shall ensure she has her choice,” Alexander said, his tone firm. He offered his elbow to Eleanor, who found herself shocked that any man would so cede to her.
She took his arm, though did not allow herself to become less wary, and Alexander led her from the hall. She did not feel more at ease, curiously, once they were alone in the corridor beyond the hall, once there was only shadows and the distant clatter of the feast being served.
For the laird himself accompanied her, of course, and his attention was fixed fully upon her.
“I have a boon to ask of you before you leave Kinfairlie,” Alexander said, sparing her a glance.
He had blue eyes, Eleanor noted, eyes filled with a thousand sparkles, as if his good humor could not be contained. His hair was as black as a raven’s wing, the black of his lashes making his eyes appear yet a more unholy blue. There were faint lines beside his eyes, as if he oft smiled, and he was tanned, as if he was oft outdoors. His manners were perfect, his grace unrivaled. She braced herself against his allure, reminding herself to trust no one. Who knew what lies a man might tell to ensnare her?
“I have little to grant and less inclination to surrender whatsoever I do possess,” she said, and glanced away.
Alexander chuckled, a beguiling sound if ever there was one. “I ask only for your name,” he said. “I am Alexander Lammergeier, Laird of Kinfairlie, and I bid you welcome to my hall, however short your visit might prove to be.”
“I was solely here on your sisters’ sufferance, but do thank you for your hospitality.” Eleanor said no more, though she felt him waiting, felt his gaze upon her, felt her color rising ever so slightly.
“Have you not a name?” he asked with some amusement.
“Why would you have need of it?” They took measured steps together, despite Eleanor’s attempt to hasten. “I intend to leave and never return.”
“Then perhaps I shall seek you out, like a knight upon a quest. It would be far simpler to succeed in that feat if I knew your name.”
Eleanor was certain he jested at her expense and stole a glance at him. She found his eyes sparkling yet, but he watched her avidly, as if truly interested in her answer. She recalled the sum of her father’s fortune and reminded herself many a man would find that worthy of fascination. “You have no good reason to seek me out,” she said primly.
“Ah, but I do.”
He spoke with such conviction that Eleanor had to look his way again. The corner of his mouth was tugging into a smile. He had a dimple beneath one corner of his mouth, and looked the very image of mischief.
He shook a finger at her. “You would have me think that you are not curious, but I can see that you are. Perhaps you do not wish to encourage me, knowing as you do that the ogre appointed as your guardian would savor the chance to devour me.”
“There is no such ogre!”
Alexander nodded sagely. “Perhaps you show your interest in me by fearing for my hide in undertaking such a quest. It shows a kindness of nature that is yet more enticing than your beauty.”
“Perhaps I show no such concern.”
He laughed, undeterred, and Eleanor found herself tempted to smile. “But surely you are not devoid of curiosity,” he teased. “You do not even ask after the details of my quest, although it concerns you alone.”
“I suspect it is the same as most men’s quests, when they ride in pursuit of women,” Eleanor said. She dared to give him a stern glance. “A coupling, either willing or nay, and a son, either legitimate or nay.”
The sparkle left his eyes, though she felt no triumph that she had insulted him. “You have a grim view of my fellows.”
“I have been taught to expect no more and no less than that.”
He considered her before he spoke. “How uncommon for a demoiselle. How unfortunate.”
“I am no maiden,” Eleanor retorted. “But a woman twice widowed.” She lifted her chin and regarded him steadily. “There are many who would consider me well-sampled for that. As for Fortune, she is a fickle companion.”
“I know that well enough,” he said so wryly that she dared to glance his way again. He smiled at her. “But surely the merit of a woman is not measured by her innocence?” He spoke with such soft conviction that Eleanor was tempted to believe he thought as much.
But men lied. Not a one of them was to be believed, especially one so certain of his own charm as this Alexander.
She said nothing, and they stepped through the last portal, into the bailey. Eleanor took a deep breath of bracingly cold air. The snow still fell, though not as thickly as it had the night before, and it was dark. Snow gleamed on the roofs of Kinfairlie village. The land seemed shrouded in silence and, though she listened with care, she heard no approaching hoof beats.
“So you assume me to be of the ilk as those men you have known, though I am not. How might I persuade you otherwise?”
At his words, Eleanor realized that Alexander had been watching her. She wondered how much he had guessed of her thoughts and feared his intent anew. “You will not.”
He smiled then, a smile of such confidence that she knew she had not deterred him. Indeed, she seemed to have done the opposite. “Then my quest shall prove interesting indeed.”
“If you pursue me, you will not bed me.”
“That is not my intent.”
She could not contain her curiosity then. “I do not understand. What then is your quest?”
“To see you smile, no more and no less.”
Eleanor stared at Alexander, so shocked was she. He smiled at her, his very expression beguiling her, tempting her, teasing her with the prospect of fulfilling his sisters’ scheme. He had firm lips and a steady gaze.
He would not be so fearsome to meet abed. Eleanor’s heart leaped in a most uncharacteristic manner.
She scoffed then, seeing the trick in his words. “Ah, but you would demand a tribute upon your success, to be sure.”
Alexander shook his head. “If you were inclined to grant one, I would accept it, but it is not my manner to force myself upon unwilling women.”
She had forgotten that she had been holding Alexander’s arm but became aware of it now, beneath his sure regard. His arm was warm and strong beneath her fingertips, and Eleanor thought she could feel the pulse of his blood beneath the flesh even through the barrier of cloth. He was no ancient man, but one young and virile and intrigued by her. She looked at him, noted the mischievous curve of his lips, and knew that a dozen years earlier, she would have surrendered her heart to Alexander Lammergeier without a murmur of protest.
But she was no innocent maiden any longer. She would have been happy to have never learned the lessons she had learned, but that did not change how they had shaped her life.
Eleanor pulled her hand from the crook of Alexander’s elbow and stepped away, half-certain he mocked her. “You are light of heart for a man so burdened with responsibility as a laird should be.” She folded her arms across her chest, feeling the cold now that she was two paces away from his heat. “Perhaps you are not laird at all.”
Alexander sobered then, his gaze flicking over the village before them. When he met her gaze again, though, his smile was less mischievous and his words came low. “Perhaps for this night, I have decided to forget my obligations.”
If his jesting manner was enticing, his thoughtfulness was more so. Eleanor had never been able to resist a man with his wits about him. She had to depart and do so immediately.
Eleanor forced a smile, though it was a sad one, then shrugged. “There is your quest fulfilled, Alexander Lammergeier, and now I will depart. You may disregard your obligations but I will never forget mine.”
“Not even for one night?”
“Not even for one moment.” With that, Eleanor turned away from this intriguing man, gathered her cloak about herself and began to walk away.
Kinfairlie was no sanctuary, not with a man such as Alexander as its laird, a man who could make her doubt even for a moment all she knew to be true.
She was best away from this false haven—the further and the sooner, the better.
Excerpt from The Snow White Bride
Copyright © 2005, 2011 Claire Delacroix, Inc.