"I will not do it! You ask too much." Gillian stamped her foot to emphasize her defiance and whirled away from her father, skirts flaring, a cascade of auburn curls bouncing sassily.
"You will do as I say. I am the King. You must obey me." Her father glared at her. "You have turned away every suitor who's come to offer his hand."
"You can't make me choose a husband if I don't want one," she exclaimed, chin held high, blue eyes flashing.
"I can and I will, or my name is not Darragh," he roared.
His eyes sparkled with angry lights, and his face was flushed nearly as red as his hair. Gillian knew she was pushing the edge of his temper, but she was determined to make her point.
"Father," she said reasonably, trying a different tact. "I have done as you asked of me. I've seen so many suitors they all run together in my head. Would you have me marry an ordinary man who has no virtue, and that I do not love?"
"You've had the best in the land to choose from. Kings, princes, men of great wealth, and none of them suited you. What do you want in a husband?"
He glared at her with impatience. Gillian smiled, knowing her dimples added to her appeal with her father.
"I want a man just like you," she said sweetly.
"Bah, don't try to coddle me, daughter." He dismissed her words although he looked somewhat pleased. "Fewer suitors come as they hear of your shrewish tongue and your prideful ways. But today, I have invited every king, prince, earl and duke for your perusal, and you will choose a mate or by the gods, I'll send you to a nunnery or worse yet, see you married to a beggar. Do you hear me, lass?"
Gillian stared at her father and quelled her tongue as she noted the implacable line to his jaw. He was a robust man with a winsome personality, well loved by his subjects and respected by his enemies. She forced a smile and dipped her head meekly, although inside she seethed at such an ultimatum.
"I will do as you wish, father," she said and hurried across the room to place a kiss on his cheek. With one slender finger, she tickled him under the chin until he grinned at her.
"Ah, lass," he said, sinking heavily into a chair. "I have a need for grandchildren from you."
"I know," she said, perching on the arm of his chair and smoothing away strands of his thinning hair. "You shall have them, all in good time."
She saw that he was pleased by her acquiescence, but he sighed as he spoke firmly.
"It is time for you to take a husband. Promise me you'll treat our guests with courtesy and respect."
"How can I respect these dowdy men with their pale faces and fat bellies, who do not love me but have an eye on my dowry?"
"Give them a chance to know you, lass, and they'll love you for yourself."
He waited for her response, and she knew what he hoped for. She loved him too much to deny him anything, except this. She would not marry a man she did not love, and she could not love an ordinary man.
"I promise I will try to look favorably upon your guests and treat them with courtesy," she agreed.
"There's a good lass," he cried joyously and hoisted himself from his chair as his wife entered the room.
Looking at Queen Roisin, anyone could see the source of Gillian's beauty. Her lithe body moved gracefully, and her back was straight, her chin held high. Pale-blonde hair was looped in swirls around her head, leaving her graceful neck and shoulders unadorned. With such beauty, there was no need for adornment.
"Darragh. It is time to join our guests," she said in a silvery-light voice as serene as a dove's call. Gillian knew full well not to be fooled by her mother's tranquil demeanor, which camouflaged as strong a will as any man. Besides the queen's beauty, her daughter had also inherited her mother's indomitable spirit.
Smiling now, Roisin turned to her daughter, her gaze sweeping over the simple, elegant gown as she nodded in approval.
"Come, Gillian," she said and held out her hand.
Though Gillian felt free to voice her defiance to her father, she never had with her mother. Whatever Queen Roisin said was accepted without demure. Gillian nodded her head in slight acquiescence and fell into step behind her parents.
As they descended the great staircase, Gillian fluffed her skirts and tried her best to find a smile. Several richly garbed men stood in the hall below, and their faces brightened when they caught sight of the king and his family. Their calculating glances lingered on Gillian. She kept her lashes lowered until they'd reached the great hall, and her father had seated himself on his throne with his wife and daughter on either side of him. One after another, her suitors presented themselves to the royal family, bending their knees and bowing with a flourish, all the while eyeing their quarry. Gillian barely glanced at them. When they had finished presenting themselves and left their rich gifts of jewels and fine silks, they stood in a line on either side of the hall.
"Now, Gillian, you will walk down the row of men and choose your mate," her father decreed.
"Must I, father?" she asked, casting a glance of appeal to her mother who stared back at her inscrutably.
"Heed my words, lass. 'Tis time."
Seeing no way out of it, Gillian rose and stalked along the row of men. Each of them smiled enticingly, their gazes sweeping over her face and lithe, feminine form with obvious approval. Some even had the audacity to leer. Impatience rose within her. Was she a prize to be given to the luckiest man, or was she a woman of her own mind? One man stepped out of the row and bowed to her, his chubby jowls quivering as he smiled invitingly. Gillian swept her gaze up and down his doughy figure and snapped her finger.
"I'll not have you for my mate. Your belly is as round as a barrel," she said haughtily.
The man's face grew red with humiliation, but she'd moved on to the next man who was rail thin.
"I'll not choose you," she said cynically. "You're too tall and too thin for me."
The man's eyes darkened, but she took no time to linger. She moved on to the next man whose face blanched at her approach.
"I won't have you, Pale Death," she said without pausing. The next man was short with a merry face and red cheeks. "Cockscomb," she muttered and moved on.
And so she continued, finding something wrong with each suitor until she reached the end of the line. A tall, well-built man stood watching her, an amused look on his face. Beneath the fine cloth of his tunic, his shoulders were broad. Dark hair fell across his brow, and a black beard covered nearly half of his face. She paused, caught by the mockery in his eyes then she thrust her chin out and glared at him.
"I certainly won't choose you," she snapped. "I have no love of black whiskers."
"My loss, Princess," he said, his husky voice sending a chill up her spine.
His measuring gaze held hers, green eyes with gold lights in them, until she was forced to lower her lashes. She felt the heat of that contemplative glance in her cheeks and other places in her body she hadn't thought about. Well, she had thought about it, but she'd yet to find a man who awakened a response. This scoundrel would have no sway over her decision. She turned away, dismissing him and returned to her father. Slowly, the men filed out of the hall.
"Well, lass, which of these fine specimens have you chosen?" King Darragh asked expectantly.
"I found no one to my liking, father," Gillian replied and flounced into her seat.
Primly, she folded her hands in her lap and waited for her father's explosion, which was quick to come.
He rose from his throne and towered over her, his lively blue eyes nearly black with anger. "So be it. You would have your way in this," he roared. "Now, I'll have mine. I will give you in marriage to the first beggar or vagabond who comes to call."
Gillian's face paled. "You wouldn't!"
"You were warned, and you did not heed my words. Now it will be as I've said."
"Mother," Gillian appealed to Roisin.
"Your father has spoken," she replied serenely. "Have you never heard that pride goeth before the fall, my daughter? Now you must live with that which you have brought upon yourself."
She rose and walked with elegant grace from the room. King Darragh cast a last furious glance at his daughter and stalked after his wife.
Gillian sat, stunned, her father's angry words ringing in her ears. Surely, he didn't mean what he'd said. When his fury cooled, he'd take back his edict. He wouldn't give his only daughter to a beggar! Comforted by her thoughts, she climbed the stairs to her room where her maid helped her disrobe and ready herself for bed. Snuggled under the warm silken covers, Gillian curled into a ball on the thick mattress and soon fell asleep, her mind at ease about what the morrow would bring.