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The castle buzzed with activity. Floors were mopped, privies limed, larders stocked, bedding laundered. Carpets were beaten, faces washed and new tapers set in place of the old, even if the old were not yet burnt out. All of this was being done because Rob Macalduie, the young Laird of Barras’s, would-be bride was on her way to inspect not only his holdings, buildings, and his people to see they were worthy of her. In addition, she was coming to look over the young the laird himself with much the same purpose in mind. If she liked what she saw, they would be wed three days hence. If not, she would leave.

For as well as being a very rich girl raised in the French courts and fostered by the powerful Duke of Gordon, Jeanne Forbes and was one of the king’s favorites. As such, even though a marriage between he and Rob would unify their two Highland clans –clans that had been fighting for generations— the duke had given her the unprecedented prerogative to deny Rob’s suit if she didn’t find favor with him. It was not a pronouncement that anyone in the clan, their wealth and manpower depleted by years of contention, liked.

What if this Jeanne with her frenchified notions took a dislike to a tapestry in the Great Hall? Or what if they served her mutton and she preferred beef? What if she favored slender men dressed in black velvet and lace? Well, she’d certainly not find his likes in the tall, broad-shouldered and heavy muscled figure of Rob Macalduie who’d spent most of his twenty-two years swinging a claymore.

How could the king have agreed to leave the fates of his brave liegemen to the whim of a seventeen-year-old girl?

But he had and there was nothing for it but to hope that Jeanne Forbes understood her duty. At least, everyone agreed, Rob understood what was at stake. Which is why he’d been driving his servants and kinsmen this past fortnight, exhorting them to scrape lower, bend a deeper knee, and above all to be careful of what they said and in what tone they said it.

None of which sat well with his cousin, Alex Graham, who thought it all well below the dignity of a laird of Barras to humble himself for a girl. But then Alex also thought he would have made the better laird than young Rob and should have been named such with the old laird’s passing four years ago — in spite of the old man naming Rob his chosen heir with his dying breath.

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