The Buchanans’ Edinburgh butler presented a folded letter to Duncan Buchanan on a silver tray. Duncan snatched the letter with his good hand and turned quickly—he didn’t like the way the butler looked at him, as if he were a ghastly apparition. He stalked to the end of the salon to stand before the fire.
The letter made Duncan curious. He was rarely in Edinburgh since the accident had occurred, and even more rarely did he receive invitations or callers. He was something of a pariah to polite society.
He studied the writing on the letter. It was from a Mr. Theodore Seaver, a name that stirred a buried memory. He tucked the letter under his useless left arm and broke the seal with his good hand, then quickly read its contents. Mr. Theodore Seaver hoped that the Laird of Blackwood—Duncan—might receive him and his late sister’s daughter, Lady Fiona Haines, at five o’clock. It was a matter of some urgency, Mr. Seaver wrote.
Fiona Haines. Duncan remembered her—a rather plain girl, save a pair of big, catlike amber eyes. But that was all he remembered about her. However, her brother, Jack, now the Earl of Lambourne, was quite another story. Duncan remembered him very clearly: a black-haired, gray-eyed roué with a liking for redheaded women. Many years ago, before either of them were really men, Jack Haines and Duncan had vied for the same redheaded woman from Aberfeldy, and Duncan had lost to him.
Duncan could not imagine what any of them would want with him now, but as he was a solitary man these days, his curiosity was piqued.
He turned partially toward the butler, glancing at him from the corner of his good eye. “Send for Mr. Cameron if you would, then. We are expecting guests at five o’clock.”
As the butler went out to fetch his secretary, Duncan turned his gaze to the fire and wondered what, after all these years, could possibly bring a Haines to his doorstep.
* * *
“I canna believe what I am about to do,” Fiona muttered beneath her breath as her uncle’s carriage clattered down Charlotte Street en route to the estate known simply as The Gables—or, as her uncle had called it, Buchanan Palace.
“Eh? What’s that you said, lass?” her uncle asked, peering at her over the rims of his spectacles, which were perennially perched on the tip of his nose.
“Naugh’ that bears repeating, Uncle,” she said, and sighed as she looked out at the gloomy façade of the buildings they were passing. It had done nothing but rain since she’d arrived in Edinburgh, coming down in hard, icy pellets. Christmas was still several days away, yet it was as if the worst of winter was setting in.
“You must no’ fret, leannan,” her uncle said. “I shall speak for you. No need to say a thing if you’d rather no’.”
Fiona couldn’t help but smile. Her aging Uncle Theodore and Aunt Lucy had always been very protective of her. “Thank you, Uncle,” she said. “I’ve no fear of speaking for myself, and you mustna think so. But I’ll be honest, sir—I do no’ care for Duncan Buchanan, and I never have, and the less I must say to him, the better.”
“Eh? What’s that?” her uncle said, cupping a hand behind his ear.
Fiona smiled and said loudly, “I said thank you!”
He smiled, obviously pleased with his role as defender, and leaned across the carriage and patted her knee.
It was dark by the time the carriage rolled to a stop in front of the very large and cheerless estate. Only two windows showed any light from within, and a pair of crows was battling over something near the entrance. Just looking up at the cold gray monolith made Fiona shiver; she pulled her hood up over her head.
The Gables was just like Blackwood, the enormous Buchanan estate situated in the Highlands. Blackwood had always seemed rather oppressive to her, even when it was the site for celebrations. Her cousin had married in the chapel there when Fiona was a girl, and Fiona recalled thinking how strange it was to see all the flowers and cheerful music and smiling faces with thick stone walls and foreboding parapets in the background.
Jack, blast him! It was just like the rapscallion to have gone there, off for a bit of sport while he waited for the scandal to die in London and for Fiona to sweep up after him! Aunt Lucy said he’d gone to see Angus Buchanan, a distant cousin of the awful laird there, but one who enjoyed duck hunting this time of year. Now she would be forced to darken the threshold of the one place in all of Scotland she swore she’d never visit again.
The door suddenly swung open, and a swath of light spilled out onto the drive. A butler stepped out and held his lantern high. “Mr. Seaver, I presume?”
“What’s that?” her uncle called back to him.
“Yes sir,” Fiona said.
“Seaver!” her uncle shouted, having ascertained the question. “Theodore Seaver at your service, sir!”
“This way if you please,” the butler said, and stepped back, gesturing for them to enter the narrow passageway that led to the house.
Uncle Theodore did not hear well, but he understood the gesture, and with his hand firmly cupping her elbow, he propelled Fiona forward.
As it turned out, the house was not nearly as imposing as it looked from the outside. In the main foyer, a woolen rug warmed the stone floor, and in addition to the usual sets of armor and swords that families like the Buchanans felt obliged to display on their walls, there was a vase of fresh hothouse flowers and a portrait of a beautiful woman gracing the small hearth.
They weren’t all ogres, then.
“Shall I have your cloaks?” the butler asked, extending his hands.
Uncle Theodore was quick to help Fiona out of hers, and as he methodically removed his hat and gloves, his greatcoat, his scarf, and yet a second scarf and handed then to the butler, Fiona shook out her skirts and smoothed her lap.
She was wearing one of her best gowns—it was brocade, claret in color and intricately embroidered. It had been fashioned for her by one of the finest modistes in London, and her friend Lady Gilbert had remarked that it showed her figure to its fullest advantage. Not that Fiona cared a wit what Duncan Buchanan might think of her figure, no sir, no indeed. She had ceased to care about anything to do with that arse several years ago.
Having divested himself of what seemed a mound of clothing, Uncle Theodore grabbed the ends of his waistcoat and gave it a good tug before looking expectantly at the butler.
The butler handed off the mound of clothing to a waiting footman, then bowed his head. “Welcome to The Gables,” he said. “If you please.” He stepped into a dark corridor, indicating they should follow.
Fiona looked at her uncle. Her uncle winked and held out his arm. Fiona sighed again, put her hand on his arm, and lifted her chin. In a matter of moments, Buchanan would discover that she was not the shy, uncertain young girl she’d been when she’d last seen him, if he remembered her at all. It had been more than a few years; she really wasn’t certain how many years it had been. She would have to give it some thought. But one thing was certain—he was undoubtedly still the most tiresomely supercilious man in all of Scotland.
They were shown into a rather large drawing room that had been divided into two rooms by a pair of heavy drapes. A man who was most decidedly not Buchanan rose from a chair as they entered and bowed respectfully to them.
Fiona curtsied as she quickly glanced around the room, searching for the magic door through which Buchanan would strut and pause to look at her with disdain. There was no door. There was only the gentleman—Mr. Cameron, he said his name was—who was saying something about being the laird’s secretary and how he was authorized to hear their petition.
Petition! As if they were serfs come on a rickety cart pulled by their aged mule to ask the laird for a bit of leniency! She was hardly aware that her uncle was speaking. She was scarcely aware of anything, as it seemed that all her thoughts had been obliterated by her fury.
* * *
Behind the drapery, Duncan stood with one hand behind his back, the other hanging listlessly at his side, and his head down. He was not expecting the woman who swept impatiently into the room. And frankly, he was more than a bit taken aback. Had he not known it was Fiona Haines who would be calling, he would not have recognized her. Granted, he scarcely remembered her at all, but this woman was resplendent in the claret gown, and seemed much more sophisticated than the girl he remembered.
If she had looked like this years ago, he would have remembered her . . . he would have bedded her.
“Please, do sit,” Mr. Cameron said, directing them both to a settee.
It was clear that Lady Fiona Haines did not want to sit, judging by the way she hung back, but her uncle gave her a stern look and put a hand to her back, steering her to the settee.
“Now then,” Mr. Cameron said as he took a seat across from them, “What might the laird do for you?”
The lady made a strange choking sound and politely put her hand to her mouth and cleared her throat as Mr. Seaver bellowed, “Pardon?”
Cameron inched forward in his seat and said loudly, “What might the laird do for you, sir?”
“Oh, ’tis naugh’ but a favor, really,” Seaver said congenially. “My niece has an urgent matter she must discuss with her brother, the Earl of Lambourne. You know of him, eh?”
“I am acquainted with the name, but I’ve no’ had the pleasure, no,” Cameron said.
“I’ve heard of him!” Cameron said loudly.
“Right, right. Well then, the earl, he’s gone off to have a bit of a hunt, then, for he didna know Fiona would be joining us in Edinburra—indeed, none of us knew, else I would have sent a man to fetch her, but there she came, in the king’s chaise no less, which, I said to me wife, Lucy, was quite a step up for our girl, it was—”
“Uncle,” Fiona said stiffly.
“Pardon?” he said to her. But with one rather stern look from her, he nodded. “Aye.” He glanced at Cameron again. “Here she is, then, our lass, Fiona, returned to us, but desperate to speak to her brother, the earl, and there he is, all the way to Blackwood. She’s determined to go to him and the wife and I, we canna stop her, for Fiona can be a bit headstrong when she’s of a mind,” he blithely continued as Fiona sighed heavenward.
“Nevertheless, the wife and I thought perhaps the laird or some of the Buchanan people would be returning to Blackwood for Hogmanay, eh? And would it no’ be lovely, sir, if Fiona could just”—he made a gesture with his fingers that looked like someone running—“tag along? Mrs. Seaver and I could rest comfortably knowing she’d gone on with the Buchanans and no’ on her own with naugh’ more to protect her than the wisp of a girl she calls a lady’s maid.”
“I beg your pardon, sir, but the lady wishes to travel to Blackwood at this time of year?” Cameron repeated carefully.
“What’s that you say?” Seaver said.
“Yes sir, to Blackwood,” Fiona said politely.
Cameron fidgeted nervously with the cuff of his shirt. “My lady, you are surely aware that the roads are hard to travel this time of year, aye?”
“I am indeed aware of that. But they are traveled, sir.”
“Aye, they are,” Cameron said. “Would you be traveling alone?”
“With a lady’s maid, as my uncle said. If she can be accommodated, of course.”
“What’d he say?” Seaver demanded, leaning into Fiona.
“He inquired if I would have a proper chaperone!”
“Oh aye, of course,” Seaver said, nodding. “You donna think we’d send her off willy-nilly, then, do you, sir? Aye, of course she’ll have her lady’s maid. Good solid lass, that one. Sheridan is her name, but we call her Sherri. Been with the family for nigh on ten years now, and she’ll brook no tomfoolery. She’s no’ always been with Fiona, no, but she had a hankering to see London, and there was Fiona, off to London to be with her brother. We were sorry to lose her—”
“Uncle,” Fiona said, laying a delicate hand on his arm. “I am certain Mr. Cameron does no’ have time to hear our entire family history.”
Seaver looked at Cameron. “All I mean to say is that Sherri’s done quite right by my niece and is a proper chaperone.”
“That’s . . . fortunate,” Cameron said uncertainly. “Lady Fiona, I must warn you that what with the snow and rain we’ve had, no’ to mention the bitterly cold weather, the roads to Blackwood are treacherous. And there is the constant threat of highwaymen once you reach the Highlands.”
From where he sat, Duncan could see Fiona folding her hands primly in her lap. “While I appreciate your concern, sir, I must speak with my brother as soon as possible. It is a matter of great urgency.”
“A letter willna do, then?” Cameron gamely tried.
She shook her head. “I wouldna risk putting it to paper.”
That was curious. Duncan knew Lambourne was a risk taker with a penchant for trouble, just as Duncan had been once. He guessed there was a debt of some sort, and probably a sizable one to prompt this foolish venture on his sister’s part.
“And what if the laird declines?” Mr. Cameron asked.
“Then I shall take a public coach,” the lady said.
“The public coach only goes as far as Aberfeldy,” Cameron reminded her.
She straightened her back and raised her chin stubbornly. “I shall make do from there.”
Make do from there? She was mad! Duncan certainly did not recall Fiona Haines as being mad as an old hen.
“Well then,” Cameron sighed. “I shall present your request to the laird. You should have word at week’s end.”
“Week’s end?” she cried.
“What comes at week’s end?” Seaver demanded, cupping his hand to his ear.
“A response, Uncle,” she said, and looked at Cameron. “As long as that, sir? Shall no one be leaving ere week’s end?”
“I will do my best,” Cameron assured her.
“His best what?” Seaver demanded.
Fiona looped her arm through her uncle’s. “His best effort, Uncle!” she said loudly. “He shall call at week’s end!”
“Ah,” Seaver said, and smiled at Cameron. “We canna ask for better than that, eh? Thank you kindly, my good man. Our regards to the laird, then. Come along, Fiona—we’ve taken enough of the man’s time.”
Duncan waited behind the drapes until Cameron returned from seeing Fiona Haines and her uncle to the door, then slowly stepped out. Cameron was one of the few people he allowed to see him when he wasn’t wearing a patch over his eye. The fire had done the most damage to his neck and left arm, which hung awkwardly and often uselessly at his side. But there was also a swath of burned, puckered skin that ran from his eye to his jaw, tugging his left eye down slightly in a manner that seemed ugly to Duncan.
If Cameron had ever been repulsed by his visage, Duncan had never seen it.
“You heard it all, milord?” Cameron asked simply.
“Every last foolish word,” Duncan said gruffly, and ran a hand over the top of his head. It was foolish—a woman had no business traveling alone save for a lady’s maid into the Highlands. But Fiona Haines seemed inordinately determined, and Seaver had guessed correctly—at the very least, Duncan would be returning to Blackwood for the Christmas feast and Hogmanay, an important Highland tradition and celebration that ushered in the new year. As the laird of Blackwood, Duncan was expected to be on hand to deliver the annual blessing of the estate’s houses and livestock.
He could see from Cameron’s expression that he was thinking the same thing—that he would be making the journey, and it would not do to let a young woman travel alone. He sighed. “It’s bloody foolish of her. But I suppose I must, eh?”
Cameron merely nodded.