The wheel of the carriage hit yet another rut in the road, jerking the Earl of Mardoun awake. He glanced across at the opposite seat, where his daughter sat with her governess. Miss Pettigrew was awake, and she cast her eyes down quickly, doing her best, as always, to blend into the upholstery. Lynette, however, had obviously been dozing, for she straightened up, running her hands over her face and yawning. Reaching out, she pushed aside the curtains.
“Look! It’s beautiful!” Lynette cried, sticking her head out the window. “Papa! It’s like a carpet of flowers.”
“Miss Lynnette, be careful,” the governess fussed. “You might catch a chill.” She hastened to spread a carriage rug over the girl’s lap.
“’Tis nearly August,” Damon commented drily. “I think Lynette is unlikely to catch cold.” The woman’s constant caution and fussing wore on his nerves. He was beginning to wish he had sent her ahead to Duncally with the servants.
He glanced at his daughter and saw that her dark eyes, so like his own, were lit with laughter. “It’s good to see you smile.”
“Yes, poor dear,” Miss Pettigrew agreed, tucking in the robe more securely. “It has been hard, losing her mother. Such a saint as Lady Mardoun was. And, of course, Miss Lynette is a very sensitive child.”
“Mm.” Damon had no idea how to respond to that statement, given that he had felt more relief than sorrow upon hearing of his wife’s demise. But then, he was neither sensitive nor saintly. He cast a glance at his daughter and saw that the smile had vanished from her face. Blast the woman—Lynette’s governess seemed to have a perfect knack for casting gloom on every situation.
He pushed aside the window curtain on his side of the carriage. “Your ‘carpet of flowers’ is heather. It was not out when I was here before, though one and all, they assured us it was too bad we missed it. It seems they were right, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, yes! I am so glad we came to Scotland. Are we getting close? I see some buildings ahead. Is that part of Duncally?”
Damon craned his neck in the direction Lynette was looking and chuckled. “No, that’s not Duncally, not even the gatehouse. You’ll know Duncally when you see it.”
“But how? I’ve never been there before.” Lynette spoke
with a shyness that never failed to send a pang of regret and guilt through him.
He smiled at her. “You will see.”
“Is it like Edinburgh Castle?”
“No, it’s not grim. It looks—oh, like a castle on the Rhine, I suppose. Or a drawing in a book. My grandfather apparently had a sense of the dramatic. Those buildings you see ahead are, I suspect, the village nearest the castle. Kincannon, Kenkilling, something like that.”
“Kinclannoch,” Lynette corrected him, then looked a trifle abashed. “I looked it up when I learned we were coming here.”
“Yes, you are right. Kinclannoch. Not a very prepossessing village.”
“No. But look at the thatched roofs. They’re quaint, aren’t they?”
“Yes. I can see you are prepared to like the place.”
“Yes, I am.” His daughter blushed faintly. “Are we Scots, then?”
“I suppose. Partly. My grandmother, your great-grandmother, was Scottish, the last of her line. The Countess of Mardoun in her own right, so when she married, the title came to her husband, Lord Rutherford, and then to their son. But Grandfather was English, of course, and my mother, as well.”
“And mine.” Lynette sighed. “So I am only . . . an eighth Scottish?”
He nodded. “You sound disappointed.”
“A little.” Color tinged her cheeks. “It seems very romantic. Tragic Queen Mary, fleeing with Bothwell and riding through the night. Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
“Also fleeing. Not exactly comfortable fates.”
“No. I suppose not.”
“But decidedly exciting.”
Damon was rewarded by the way her delicate face lit up again. “But, look, we are stopping. Is this an inn? Will we not reach Duncally today?”
“No, it’s not far. I suspect the coachman’s gone to ask directions. The roads are rather ill marked.” He leaned across to look out the curtains on the opposite side of the carriage. His hand stilled on the drapery.
A woman stood across the narrow street, chatting with a young gentleman. She was attired in a simple blue cotton dress, a little too low-waisted to be fashionable, and not even a ruffle around the skirt for adornment—but then, that sweetly curved body needed no adornment. Her arms below the short cap sleeves were bare—white and soft and shapely—and she wore no gloves. Her head, too, was bare and, in the glint of the afternoon sun, was a riot of thick, red curls. Her face was heart-shaped, with rounded cheeks and a firm little chin.
She turned and looked toward the carriage and her eyes met Damon’s. For an instant it seemed as if his heart stopped. Her eyes were glorious—large and wide set and rimmed with thick, dark lashes, and their color was stunning, a brown so light, so clear, they appeared golden.
“Oh, Papa, look at that lady,” his daughter said in a hushed tone. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Yes,” he agreed, his voice a trifle husky. “Yes, she is.”
Meg Munro turned toward the noise of horses’ hooves, and her eyebrows rose at the sight of the elegant black vehicle and matched team of four coal-black horses. “Look at that.”
Beside her, Gregory Rose looked in the same direction. “Well, well.”
“The Earl of Mardoun, do you think?”
“I’d guess. All of Kinclannoch has been buzzing ever since his staff arrived last week. Still, I never thought he would actually come. Ah, look, the lord is surveying the peasants.”
A man’s face appeared in the carriage window. Thick, black hair swept back from a square-jawed face, his skin as fair as his hair was dark, his eyes under the prominent ridge of his brow echoing the jet black of his hair. Arrogance and boredom colored his expression in equal measure, but neither could detract from the handsomeness of his face.
He stared straight at Meg. She was accustomed to men’s stares. What was unfamiliar to her was the visceral pull she felt in return. She was suddenly, acutely aware of the sun’s warmth on her arms, the touch of the air on her face, as if her senses had awakened from a deep slumber. Even the scents carried on the breeze were suddenly sharper, the sounds brighter. Yet at the same time the world around her seemed to retreat, her focus narrowing to the carriage window.
“Meg? Are you all right?” Gregory’s voice pulled her from her trance.
“What?” She pulled her gaze away and looked up at the man she had known since childhood. “I’m sorry . . . what did you say?”
“Nothing important. Just wondering how long the earl
would last this time.” Gregory gave her an odd look. “Is there something amiss? Do you feel ill?”
Meg forced out a credible laugh. “Do I look so bad as that?”
“You never look bad, as you are well aware,” he retorted. “You just seemed . . . very far away.” He glanced over at the carriage. The man in the carriage had pulled back and was now only an indistinct form in the shadows of the interior. “I thought—I wondered—do you know that chap?”
“The Earl of Mardoun?” Meg’s voice dripped with scorn. “Oh, aye, I know him. I’ve never seen the man before, but his deeds speak for him. Tossing all his people out of their homes without the slightest thought for how they will live or where they will go, all so that he can make a few more pounds profit raising sheep instead. He’s a coldhearted devil.” No matter that he was a handsome one as well.
“Perhaps he is unaware of his steward’s actions,” Gregory suggested mildly.
Meg sent her friend a speaking glance. “It is like you to hope for the best in people. But I have dealt with too many of his sort to hold a rosy view of him. He is the sort Andrew was wont to bring home with him from Oxford—English ‘gentlemen’—haughty and fine and unaccountably full of themselves, certain that everyone else was put on this earth to serve them. Remember, it was the earl who hired MacRae as his steward, and I doubt that worm of a man would do aught but his master’s bidding.”
“No doubt you’re right. I wonder Mardoun dares to come here. Surely he must know how everyone around the loch despises him.”
“I doubt he cares. Or perhaps he is like MacRae and
he enjoys watching firsthand the misery he inflicts on the crofters.”
“MacRae.” Gregory made a disgusted noise. “That man is a snake.”
“Aye.” Meg’s jaw hardened.
“Has MacRae been bothering you?” Gregory narrowed his eyes at her. “If he has, I’ll have a word with the man.”
“Don’t you begin, as well.” Meg rolled her eyes. “I can handle MacRae; he is a pest, nothing more.”
“Very well. I shall not plague you . . . as long as you promise to tell me if the man needs a more physical reminder.”
“Yes, yes.” Meg heaved a martyr’s sigh. “I promise I will tell you if MacRae grows too difficult. At least I can count on you not to send the man to his grave, which is not something I can trust with my brother.”
“’Twould be no loss if he died.”
“It’s not MacRae I worry about. I don’t want to see Coll in gaol.” Behind them came a shout and a slap of the reins, and they turned to see the earl’s carriage rumble off.
“Well sprung, isn’t it?” Gregory said in an admiring voice. “Though I’d prefer something a little more flash myself.”
Meg chuckled. “The Highlands roads will put those axles to the test well enough.” She made a face and waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Enough about the Earl of Mardoun. How do you fare?” She tucked a hand into Gregory’s arm as they strolled down the street. “How is your father? I heard you visited him last week.”
“Aye.” Gregory sighed, his face falling into unaccustomedly sober lines. “He seems better. The couple who look
after him are good to him, but they understand they must not let him out of their sight. Orkney is not far enough away, I know, but it seemed unwise to move him to a city. Jack has been very agreeable about the matter, more so than my father deserves.”
“Jack is not like most gentlemen. And your father is family to him now, after all.”
“True.” Gregory grinned. “I suspect the man would do most anything Isobel asked.”
“And vice versa.” Meg laughed. “They are almost enough to make one decide to marry.”
“No!” He put on a shocked expression. “Surely not you.”
“Nay, not I. Nor you, I’ll warrant. How are the happy couple? Have you heard from them?”
“Aunt Elizabeth received a letter from Isobel, and it seems they are enjoying London very much. Still, I think they miss the Highlands. I would not be surprised if they return soon.”
When they reached the edge of the village, Meg parted from her friend, following the road the carriage had taken until, after a few minutes, she came to an intersecting path. She paused for a moment, as she always did, to take in the landscape before her.
To her left along the path lay the woods and her home and the loch, though from this vantage point she could not see the water itself. At the farthest end of the loch, dominating the countryside around it, was Duncally, the seat of the earls of Mardoun. It rose in manicured layers of gardens and terraces up the hillside, crowned at the top by the magnificence of the castle itself. No medieval fortress, the Earl of Mardoun’s home was more akin to a palace, all narrow
towers and turrets and spires and terraces, sparkling white in the sun.
But Meg’s eyes were not drawn to this opulent sight. What always brought her to an admiring halt was the green clearing before her and the towering stones that stood in the center of it. Each weathered white rock was twice Meg’s height or more, and together they formed a massive oval with a gap here and a tumbled-down stone there that had once made the figure complete. In the distance was the grassy hump of a barrow, and on either side of the stone circle, but clearly apart from it, were two other standing stones, one smaller than the others and with a curious hole through the center.
Meg drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes, the familiar sense of peace settling over her. Sometimes here among the “old ones” she could almost believe the tales her mother and Elizabeth Rose told, legends of the fey folk and mystical beings. She could almost believe the whispers about the Munro women and their uncanny knowledge of the forest and caves, their special skills with herbs and potions. Isobel Rose had once said that Meg was “one with the land,” and standing here, Meg knew she was.
Until she opened her eyes and let out a sigh, and once more this was merely a lovely, peaceful spot, a bit of land special to the people of Kinclannoch, however little they knew now of what it had once been. And she was simply a woman who had grown up roaming the area and learning all its secrets, the descendant of a long line of women who were herbalists and healers.
She made her way around the stones to take the path home, and as she turned, she cast a glance up toward the
castle that dominated the horizon. She wondered if the carriage had made it to Duncally yet; it was a long way round the loch to the mansion at the far end. Why had the earl decided to grace the glen with his presence? She wondered if Lady Mardoun had been in the carriage beside him. He looked the sort of man whom a wife would be foolish to let out of her sight.
Meg clicked her tongue with annoyance. What was she doing, thinking about Mardoun or his lady? The gentry were nothing to her—especially someone as vile as Mardoun. The earl was not the only one evicting his crofters from the land their families had lived on for hundreds of years. Landowners such as Isobel Rose and her new husband who cared more for their people than for gold were in the minority, and all over the Highlands, the Clearances were tearing people from their land, setting them on the road, with no place to go and only the clothes on their backs and the goods they could carry. But Mardoun, as the largest property owner in the area, was responsible for more of the displacements, and worse, he was notorious for the cold and callous way he tossed his crofters out with little notice.
She had despised the man without ever laying eyes on him—which made it all the stranger that when she had seen him today for the first time, she had felt such a strange, strong frisson of excitement. Meg thought again of that lean, compelling visage—the dark, intense eyes beneath the ridge of his brow, the thick, black sweep of hair, the arrogant tilt of his head, the sensual curve of his mouth. Amazingly, her insides warmed again at the thought of him.
Her reaction astonished and appalled her in almost equal
measure. Meg had never been one to swoon over any man. She had been the object of male pursuit for years—she was too honest to pretend she did not know that men found her desirable. As far as she was concerned, her friend Isobel’s elegant blond beauty was more attractive than her own flame-red hair and too-wide cheeks, but her looks had a certain flamboyance that drew men, which was only enhanced by the reputation the Munro women had always carried. Many men assumed that a woman who lived freely was free with her favors, as well.
Meg had always been quick to dispel that notion. Meg Munro was not a woman to settle for anything less than the deepest of feelings, and no man had managed to disrupt her thoughts, let alone capture her heart.
It was ridiculous to think that a strange man sitting in a carriage—a man, moreover, whom she considered a blackguard—could so immediately, so effortlessly, stir her blood. It was more than ridiculous; it was impossible. Whatever strange sensation had run through her, it could not have been desire. She had not even gotten a proper look at him. It had been a mere glance, no doubt a trick of her eyes that made her think he was far more handsome than he was. The idea of some sort of immediate visceral connection between them was ludicrous, the stuff of the Gothic novels Isobel’s aunt was fond of reading.
A closer look would no doubt have shattered that first illusion. The mystery had intrigued her—that momentary glance, the deep, dark eyes, the way the sun had highlighted the fair skin of his face amid the pool of shadow inside the carriage. If he had stepped out, she would have seen . . . what? Perhaps he would have proved to be shorter than she
and potbellied. Or a vacuous fop, dressed in a chartreuse jacket and sporting a gigantic posy in his lapel.
She giggled at the image. But, no, she could not believe that the lean, strong features and proud head indicated anything but an equally powerful frame. And it was hard to picture that burning gaze turning blank and vacant.
It was easier to imagine that mouth in a hard, cruel line, disdain etched upon his features. Yet, just thinking of him, she felt a treacherous warmth twining through her again. With a disgusted noise, she shook the image from her mind and strode briskly to her cottage.
She had things to do—those mushrooms she’d spotted on her way to the village earlier and vegetables to harvest, not to mention the tonic for Aunt Elizabeth and a poultice for Ben Fleming’s gout. And old Mrs. McEwan was in need of something for her lumbago.
Meg’s steps slowed. Mrs. McEwan’s daughter Sally was cook at Duncally, and it would be easy enough to take her a pot of salve for the old woman. Sally would no doubt welcome some fresh herbs as well, now that the earl was there and expecting tasty dishes. The cook was always eager for a good gossip. Perhaps this was a good time to visit the castle.
Early the next morning, Meg plucked handfuls of herbs from her garden, mint and rosemary and thyme, and tucked them into a basket along with a bag of fresh mushrooms, a pot of salve, and a bottle of her best plum cordial, which was Granny McEwan’s favorite. Then she set out for the
Duncally kitchen. It was a pleasant walk up the hillside to the castle if one knew the way through the woods, and the last climb up the steps and terraces of the gardens offered a sweeping view of the loch, where one could see the jumbled ruins of the old castle and the gray bulk of Baillannan across from her.
Meg passed the Duncally mews with a wave to the falconer as he stood, heavy glove on his hand, waiting for a hawk that swept in on wide wings. She then walked through the wide, manicured sweep of the lowest garden and started up the steps to the higher levels. Duncally was usually a quiet, deserted place, with only a skeleton staff about to keep the gardens and house neat and ready for the master’s potential arrival. But now it hummed with activity, though conducted in a hushed and unobtrusive manner.
“Meg Munro!” Sally McEwan cried as Meg stepped through the door. “Bless us, child, you maun hae read my mind.” Sally bustled forward to take the basket from Meg’s arm. “I was just about to send Josie to your cottage. Here is himself, saying we maun hae mushrooms with the chicken tonight, and me thinking if I sent Josie to pick them, we’d find everyone dead in their beds tomorrow morning. Oh! And fresh rosemary!” Sally held up one of the small sacks and sniffed dramatically.
“This is for your mother.” Meg dug the pot from the basket.
“You are an angel.” The older woman popped the small jar into one of her capacious pockets. “Come, sit doon. I hae not seen you in this age.” Sally took the basket and handed it to a kitchen maid, saying, “Here, lass, put these awa’ and fetch a cup of tea for us.”
“Are you sure you’re not too busy?” Meg glanced around at the bustling kitchen.
“Och, we’ve been nocht but too busy for the week past, and I see nae hope of it getting better. Take your moment while you can, I say.” Sally steered Meg out of the busy room and into the servants’ dining room, where Sally sank down on a chair and fanned her red face. “How did you ken my mither was down in the back? Sometimes I think you maun hae the sicht like your gran.”
“No.” Meg smiled. “I heard it from Mary Grant. Is she in much pain?”
“She’d not be feeling bad at all if she hadna tried to lift a sack of meal all on her ane,” Sally retorted unsympathetically. “I told her I’d send Tommy to help her, but, no, she maun do it richt that morning ’fore he got there.” Sally shrugged. “Well, you ken how she is.”
“Aye, I do.” One of the kitchen maids brought in a pot of tea and cakes, and as Sally went about pouring it, Meg went on, “Who is ‘himself’ that must have mushrooms with his chicken? Mardoun?”
“Nae, not the earl. I’ve not seen that one since we lined up for our curtsy yesterday. ’Twas Hudgins.” Her sour expression left little doubt as to her feelings for the man. “That fancy Sassenach butler who came to set us all in order. Och, it would break that man’s face to smile. It’s for the little missy, says he, she’s partial to mushrooms. And there’ll be no more haggis at their table—Hudgins tossed it on the dust heap last night. The poached salmon will do, ye ken, but his lordship’s ‘palate’ is too ‘refined’ for blood sausage. I ask you, what sort of man does no’ like a bit of blood sausage
with his breakfast? And what is a palate? Some fancy English thing, I suppose.”
“Mm.” Meg hid her smile.
“And if he isna bad enough, here’s Mrs. Ferguson ayeways popping in to check on everyone.”
“The housekeeper? But she is always here.”
“Aye, and I’ve learned to put up with her sermons and her rules. But now she’s worried this English butler will find her wanting. So she’s forever sticking her nose in, harrying the maids and telling everyone they’re taking too long to do their jobs. Well, they’d do them much faster, wouldn’t they, if she were not here bleating at them?”
Meg did not bother to hide her smile this time. She had been on the receiving end of Mrs. Ferguson’s sermons a time or two. “Who is ‘the little missy’? Surely he was not talking about the countess.”
“Nae, the countess passed on nigh a year ago. It’s the earl’s daughter I mean—a pale, little thing, trailing about with that woman hovering over her. She maun hae the windows closed lest she catch cold. She canna do this and she maun be careful there—”
“The earl’s daughter is sickly?”
“Aye, it seems so.” Sally frowned. “Though it’s not the lass, ye ken, who does all that fussing. It’s the governess. The woman seems to think the Highlands are full of wild creatures out to gobble the lass up. She frets when Miss Lynette gies oot to the gardens or doon to the falconry. Fair taken wi’ the birds, Miss Lynette is.” Sally paused, considering. “The lass was lively enough when she was talking to Jamie.”
“They are in mourning, I take it.”
“Aye, I suppose—though I canna say he looks grief-stricken.” Sally leaned forward confidentially. “I hear Mardoun dinna live with his lady and the lass. He wasna even in the country when the countess died.” The cook leaned back, giving a shrug. “Course, they’re English.”
Meg took a sip of her tea and said casually, “What is he like—the earl, I mean?”
“He’s a good-looking devil. Dark as Lucifer and just as handsome. But beyond that, I dinna know.”
“Well, you know he does not like blood sausage.” Meg grinned.
“Aye, there’s that.” Sally chuckled. She paused, cocking her head to one side, listening to noises in the kitchen. “Och, there’s Mrs. Ferguson now. Best get back to the chopping board or I’ll no’ hear the end of it.” Sally shoved herself up from the table.
Meg hopped to her feet as well. “I’d best leave, or she’ll be asking me why I was not at kirk on Sunday.”
“Aye. Thank ye, lassie, for the medicine for Ma.” Sally took Meg’s hand, squeezing it. “Ruth will hae set your basket by the door.”
Meg escaped with only a dark scowl from the housekeeper, who was more intent on scolding one of the housemaids than tending to Meg’s morals this morning. She picked up her basket, now filled with vegetables from the cook’s garden and a little pouch of coins, and slipped out the rear door.
She glanced to her right where another set of steps led to the main terrace. It was empty, as was the garden below, apart from a pair of gardeners trimming the hedges. Not that she had really expected to see the earl—or anyone else. She
started along the flagstone path leading to the lower gardens. She had not yet reached the stairs when the sound of footsteps behind her made her stop and turn around.
There, at the edge of the terrace, stood the Earl of Mardoun.