That anxious cry made Evelinde pause in what she was saying to Cook and glance around. Her maid was rushing across the kitchens toward her, expression both angry and worried. It was a combination usually only engendered by Edda's actions. Wondering what her stepmother had got up to now, Evelinde quickly promised Cook they would finish their discussion of menus later, and went to meet her maid.
Mildrede caught her hands the moment they reached one another. Her mouth turned down grimly as she announced, "Your stepmother is calling for you."
Evelinde grimaced. Edda only sent for her when she was in one of her foul moods and wished to cheer herself by abusing her unfortunate stepdaughter. For one moment, Evelinde considered ignoring the summons and finding a task away from the keep for the rest of the day. However, that would only make the woman's moodâand the subsequent abusesâworse.
"I had best go see what she wants then," Evelinde said and squeezed Mildrede's hands reassuringly before moving past her.
"She's smiling," Mildrede warned, following on her heels.
Evelinde paused with her hand on the door to the great hall, trepidation running through her. A smiling Edda was not a good thing. It usually meant Evelinde was about to suffer. Not that the woman ever dared hit her, but there were worse things, tasks so unpleasant one would almost prefer a beating. Biting her lip with worry, she asked, "Do you know what has set her off this time?"
"Nay," Mildrede said apologetically. "She was railing at Mac for not pampering her mare properly when a messenger arrived from the king. She read the message, smiled, and called for you."
"Oh," Evelinde breathed faintly, but then forced her shoulders straight, raised her head, and pushed through the door. It was the only thing she could do . . . That and pray that someday, she would be free of her stepmother's control and abuses.
"Ah, Evelinde!" Edda was indeed smilingâa very wide, beaming smile that really didn't bode well.
"I was told you wished to speak with me?" Evelinde said quietly, aware of Mildrede hovering at her back. The woman always offered her support during Edda's little attacks.
"Aye." Edda continued to flash a wide, toothy smile, although toothless would have been as good a description. The woman was missing half her teeth. and those remaining were brown and crooked. Edda rarely smiled, and certainly never widely enough to show off the state of her mouth. Her doing so now made Evelinde's anxiety increase tenfold.
"Since your father's death, seeing to your welfare has fallen to me, and I have been most concerned about your future and well-being, my dear," Edda began.
Evelinde managed not to sneer at the claim of concern. Her father, James d'Aumesbery, had been a good man and a faithful baron to their king. When Henry III had requested he marry the troublesome Edda and remove her from court, where she was making a nuisance of herself, her father had bowed to the task gracefully. Edda had not. She'd resented being tied to a man who held only a barony and had seemed to take an instant dislike to Evelinde on reaching d'Aumesbery.
It hadn't been so bad at first. With the presence of Evelinde's father and her brother, Alexander, Edda had at least behaved cordially to her. However, Alexander had ridden off to join the Crusades with Prince Edward three years earlier. While the prince had since returned and been crowned king on his father's death, Alexander was still in Tunis. Worse yet, no sooner had he left than their father died of a chest complaint.
James d'Aumesbery hadn't even been placed in the family crypt before Edda dropped any pretense at civility and let her true feelings show. These last three years had been a hell Evelinde feared she would never escape. Her only hope was to await her brother's homecoming so that he might see her married and settled far away from the woman. Unfortunately, Alexander seemed in no rush to return.
"I have decided 'tis well past time you married," Edda announced, "and the king agrees with me."
"She means the king decided you should marry, and she was forced to agree," Mildrede muttered behind her, low enough that Edda couldn't hear. "You don't think she'd willingly give up tormenting you. It's her favorite pastime."
Evelinde barely heard her maid, she was too busy trying to absorb what Edda was saying. Part of her feared it was simply a cruel attempt on Edda's part to get her hopes up, then dash them.
"And so I chose a husband for you, and the king negotiated a marriage contract," Edda announced grandly. "I have just received a message that 'tis all done. You will be married."
Evelinde simply waited, knowing there was more. Edda would either explain it was all a jest, or name some perfectly horrid, smelly old lord that Evelinde would surely be miserable with.
"Your betrothed is on his way here from his home even as we speak. He is the laird of Donnachaidh," she announced triumphantly, pronouncing it Don-o-kay.
Evelinde gasped. This was worse than a smelly old lord, this wasâ"the Devil of Donnachaidh?"
Edda's expression was full of evil glee. "Aye, and I wish you all the unhappiness in the world."
"Bitch," Mildrede hissed furiously from behind Evelinde.
Ignoring her maid, Evelinde managed to force away the horror and dismay and keep her features expressionless. She would not add to Edda's pleasure by revealing how deep this blow had struck. The Devil of Donnachaidh? The woman didn't just hate her, she despised her if she was willing to hand her over to that infamous Scottish laird.
"Now be gone," Edda said, apparently having had her fun. "I do not wish to look on you anymore."
Evelinde nodded stiffly and turned, catching Mildrede by the arm to lead her out of the great hall and the keep itself.Devil of the Highlands. Copyright Â© by Lynsay Sands . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Devil of the Highlands by Lynsay Sands
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