From Chapter One
“St. Columba’s bones, Ellie! When is the last time you had any fun? You’ve become positively boring.” Matty emphasized the last with all the exaggerated drama of a girl of eight and ten, making it sound as if Ellie had caught some hideous disease akin to leprosy.
Ellie didn’t turn her attention from the swathes of fabric strewn across her bed, answering her younger sister automatically, “I’m not boring and don’t blaspheme.” She lifted a light sky blue silk up to her chest. “What do you think of this one?”
“See!” Matty threw up her hands in utter despair. “That’s exactly my point. You are only a few years older than I am, yet you act like my nursemaid. But even ol’ pinched-faced Betha was more fun that you. And Thomas says St. Columba’s bones all the time and no one says a word to him.”
“I’m six years older, and Thomas isn’t a lady.” Ellie wrinkled her nose at her reflection in the looking glass and discarded the blue in the growing pile of unbecoming colors. The light pastels that were so favored right now did nothing for her dark hair and eyes.
Matty—whom pastels suited perfectly—narrowed her big blue eyes. There was nothing that annoyed Mathilda de Burgh more than having the freedom that her twin brother enjoyed pointed out. Her adorable chin set in a stubborn line, making her look like a mulish kitten. “That is a ridiculous reason, and you know it.”
Ellie shrugged, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “That’s the way of it.”
“It doesn’t have to be.” Matty took her hand and gave her a pleading look. With her silky blond hair, porcelain skin, red Cupid’s bow mouth and big blue eyes it was hard to resist. But Ellie had had plenty of experience doing just that. To a one, all nine—eight—of her siblings were ridiculously gorgeous creatures with fair hair and light eyes. She and Walter had been the only ones with their father’s dark Norman coloring.
A hot wave of sadness washed over her. Now there was only her.
“That’s why tonight will be so much fun,” Matty prodded, not giving up. “It’s the only night we are allowed to swim with men. This is your last chance. Next year you’ll be off in England with your new husband.” She heaved a dreamy sigh.
Ellie’s stomach took a little tumbling dive as it always did at the mention of her impending nuptials, but she pushed through the sudden queasiness. “Maiden’s Plunge isn’t for women of our position.”
She bit her lip, sounding staid even to her own ears. As the pagan celebration of Yule had given way to Christmas, so too had the ancient Norse “Virgin’s Plunge” (re-named the Maiden’s Plunge so as to not further offend church), where the pagans had sacrificed young maidens to Aegir the God of the sea, given way to the celebration of Candlemas—the day marking the end of the epiphany and Christmas season. The church cast a disapproving glare on the pagan celebrations, but did not try to forbid them. Perhaps because they knew an attempt would fail.
Every February 2nd at midnight, the local girls would jump into the icy cold seas, and then race back to the shore to warm themselves by the enormous fires (instead of the saunas the Norse had used). The girl who stayed in the cold waters the longest was crowned the Ice Princess. Ellie had won the crown the last three times she entered. Walter used to joke that she must be part selkie, since cold water didn’t seem to bother her.
“You didn’t used to think so.” Matty shook her head, staring at Ellie as if she were a stranger. “I don’t understand, you used to love swimming and the Maiden’s Plunge.”
“That was before . . .” Ellie stopped and swallowed, her throat suddenly tight. “I was just a girl. Now I have responsibilities.”
Matty was quiet for a moment as Ellie turned back to the fabrics on the bed that would become the gowns for her new life in England at the court of King Edward, as wife to his former son-in-law, Ralph de Monthermer.
“That’s not fair,” Matty said quietly. “You aren’t the only one who misses them. I miss them, too. But neither mother or Walter would have wanted you to mourn them forever.”
The fever that had swept through the halls of Dunluce Castle two years ago had claimed not only her nineteen-year-old brother, but also her mother, Margaret, Countess of Ulster. For Ellie—at the time twenty-two—the fever had also claimed something else: the spirited young girl thirsting for adventure. As the eldest unmarried daughter, Ellie had taken on most of her mother’s duties as countess, including watching over her younger brothers and sisters.
What kind of example would she be to go frolicking half-naked in the sea?
This was the first time they’d been back to Dunluce Castle since her mother and brother—heir to the earldom—had died. They were supposed to meet her betrothed at Carrickfergus, the main stronghold of the Earl of Ulster, but King Edward had ordered them here instead. Though Ellie wasn’t in her father’s confidences, she guessed it had something to do with the never-ending hunt for Robert Bruce.
Her sister’s luminous eyes misted with tears and Ellie instinctively folded her in her arms. “I know you miss them, too.” Ellie sighed. “And you’re right. They wouldn’t want us to mourn them forever.”
Matty pushed back, a wide smile spread across her face, all vestiges of her tears gone. “Then does that mean you’ll come?”
Ellie’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. Minx. She was as unrelenting as her Godfather, King Edward.
“At least say you’ll think about it,” Matty interjected before Ellie could object.
Ellie had no intention of thinking about it at all, but Matty wasn’t the only one who knew how to get what she wanted. With five master manipulators still in her charge who didn’t like being told “no,” she’d had to adapt to survive. “Very well, I’ll think about it.”
Matty’s eyes widened. “You will?” She clapped her hands together excitedly. “It will be so much fun—”
“I’ll think about it,” Ellie stressed. “If you will help me pick out which of these should be made into gowns.”
She couldn’t seem to muster any enthusiasm for the task. Matty had an eye for color, which Ellie certainly did not. But there was more to it than that, and she knew it. Something was wrong with her. What else could explain the sickly feeling that washed over her every time she thought of her marriage? A marriage that by all objective measures she should be grateful for.
Ralph was handsome and kind—cutting an impressive figure with his tall, broad shouldered physique—and considered a great knight. He was a man who should be easy to admire.
Then why did her stomach turn, her heart flutter wildly, her skin dampen in a cold sweat, and she feel like she was going to faint or be sick whenever she was in the same room with him?
And why, as the days to the wedding drew near, did she feel this strange restlessness growing inside her. Restlessness that made her want to do something crazy like run through the sand in bare feet or pull off her veil and hairpins and feel the wind blowing through her hair.
Or plunge into the icy sea.
But her irrational feelings made no difference. She would marry the man her father chose for her just as Matty would eventually have to do. They were Ulster’s daughters, choice did not figure in decisions of marriage.
For the next few minutes, Matty ruthlessly rejected, and much less frequently accepted, swathes from among the large pile of luxurious wools, damasks, and velvets. When she’d finished, what remained was a much smaller stack of dark browns, greens, russets, and deep golds. Not a bold color or pastel among them.
Ellie sighed, looking longingly at the stack of pink, blues, yellows, and reds. “I’ll be the most somber lady at court,” she said glumly.
Matty frowned. “You’ll look beautiful. The autumnal shades bring out the golden undertones of your skin and the green flecks in your eyes.”
One corner of her mouth lifted. Green flecks? “My eyes are brown.”
Matty’s mouth pursed mutinously. “Your eyes are a beautiful, vibrant hazel.”
Brown, Ellie thought, which was perfectly fine with her. But she knew better than to argue. Her siblings always tried to make her feel special, and they took it as a personal affront if anyone alluded to Ellie’s lack of the family’s dazzling good looks. She might be considered passably pretty in a normal family. But her family wasn’t normal. It never ceased to amaze her—and apparently others—how two such extraordinary looking people as her mother and father could produce such an ordinary looking child as her.
But her unremarkable countenance bothered her siblings far more than it did her. She’d learned early on that beauty did not guarantee happiness. It certainly hadn’t for her mother.
She was happy with ordinary, but her family refused to see her as anything other than special.
Matty was watching her as if she could read her mind. “I wish you could see yourself the way I do. You are far more beautiful than the rest of us put together. Your beauty shines from within.” A euphemism for unattractive if ever there was one, Ellie thought. “You are kind, generous, sweet—”
“And boring,” Ellie interjected, uncomfortable with her sister’s praise.
Matty grinned. “And boring. But not for long. Remember you did promise to think about it. Do say you’ll come. It will be fun, you’ll see.” Her smile turned mischievous. “Maybe that gorgeous fiancé of yours will be there.”
Ellie blanched. Forsooth, she hoped not. She could barely manage two words around the man before she broke out in a cold sweat.
Matty gave her an odd look. “I don’t know what’s the matter with you, Ellie. You act as if you don’t want this marriage. Ralph is young and handsome.” Her eyes grew dreamy. “With that dark hair and green eyes . . .” Her voice dropped off.
Ralph had green eyes? Ellie hadn’t noticed. “You’re so lucky,” Matty continued. “I’d snatch him up in a heartbeat if I were you. I’ll probably end up married to some man older than father with stale breath, doughy hands and gout.” She looked at her quizzically. “Don’t you like him?”
“Of course I do,” Ellie replied automatically, though her heartbeat fluttered in a panic. What wasn’t to like? “I’m sure he will make a wonderful husband.”
“And a father,” Matty said. She tilted her head. “Is that what’s bothering you? How many children does he have, ten?”
“Eight.” Five girls, the young earl, and two more boys. All under the age of twelve. Nothing she wasn’t used to. She shook her head. “Nay, I like children.”
Matty leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “And they will be as lucky to have you as we were.” She gave an impish wag of her delicately arched eyebrows. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun first.”
Ellie rolled her eyes and shooed her sister out of the small chamber. “Off you with you. I need to check on little Joan and Edmond before the evening meal.”
“I’ll see you tonight,” Matty said with a sly glance.
Her sister was nothing if not persistent. She made it sound as if Ellie did nothing but eat, pray, and take care of the younger children.
Ellie bit her lip, realizing it was fairly close to the truth. Had she become too serious? Was she—she swallowed hard—boring?
What had happened to the wild urchin who used to swim and roam the countryside? Who used to love a challenge? Who used to dream of adventure? Who once thought the greatest thing would be to step foot on every island between here and Norway?
That seemed like so long ago. Perhaps too long. Dreams changed. People changed.
She was four and twenty now, betrothed to an important English knight, and virtual countess of the most powerful nobleman in Ireland.
She could hardly go traipsing around the countryside like a country maid.
No matter how fun it sounded.