VANESSA BLACKBURN SAT ON the edge of the cliff overlooking the North Sea. It was a chill spring day in the Scottish Highlands, but she was bundled in her fur-lined winter coat as well as a thick tartan that she could use as a hood if the wind picked up. She wasn’t Scottish—well, she was a little. Her great-grandfather Angus MacCabe had been a Scotsman, but his youngest daughter had married an English earl, a Blackburn. Vanessa’s father, William, was their only surviving son.
There was an old campfire pit nearby, which she and her father lit in the winter on clear nights when they would sit out here to watch the most bizarre display of lights that filled the sky to the north. She was going to miss that amazing spectacle. She was also going to miss riding across the hills and dales, fishing, helping her father with the cattle and horses, all the things she could only do here. She would be leaving soon.
She didn’t want to go. The freedom she’d enjoyed here was addictive. She didn’t want to give it up, but she knew she would have to, at least for a little while when she visited her mother,
Kathleen. She was already dreading the arguments and rows they would have when she reached Dawton Manor in Cheshire. She hadn’t forgotten for a minute how adamant and determined her mother was about serving up three absolutely perfect daughters to the ton. Her mother had already put her and her twin sisters through a grueling regimen of the do’s and don’ts of a lady’s proper decorum. Her father called it being turned into a puppet, and it had felt that way to her more often than not. He had taken a different approach to educating her when they arrived in Scotland, hiring all sorts of tutors for her and not one of them had mentioned etiquette to her.
She would never forget the traumatic day their lives had changed when she was thirteen. There had been yelling. Her parents had gone outside to do it so no one would hear them, but even from a distance it was obvious they were yelling. She’d watched from an upstairs window with her sisters, the twins in tears. None of them had ever seen their parents fight.
Later that day she was surprised to find her father in his room packing, gathering up everything in the room that was his.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“For how long?”
“Ask your mother.” His tone had been angry, but he’d glanced at her then, seen her tears and held out his arms. She ran into them, refusing to believe it might be the last time he would hug her, but he confirmed it when he added softly, “I’m sorry, darling girl, but I can never come back here.”
She ran out of the room to confront her mother, who was
in tears, too, but they were angry ones. Still, Vanessa asked, “Why is Papa leaving?”
“Because he has to. There’s no choice, and that’s all you need to know.”
“He said to ask you!”
“Yes, of course he would. And I answered. Now go away. I’m too angry to deal with you girls today.”
Vanessa cried for the rest of the day until she decided to sneak away with her father. She even left her mother a note: You drove Papa away. I hate you, you’ll never see me again!
William was leaving that night in a coach with his belongings piled high on top of it. She left with nothing. She jumped up on the back of the vehicle and climbed carefully to the top, putting a finger to her lips when the driver saw her up there. She revealed herself to her father the next night, only when she got too hungry to hide any longer. Papa was going to take her back immediately. She promised she’d run away again. She swore she wouldn’t live at Dawton Manor without him, that she hated Mama for fighting with him and forcing him to leave. He tried to tell her it was nothing like that, that it wasn’t Kathleen’s fault, yet from his tone and his expression she knew it was a lie. He finally agreed she could stay with him until he got settled, but then he’d have someone take her back. He even arranged that night for a letter to be delivered to Kathleen informing her that Vanessa was safe with him. Her father’s plan hadn’t come to pass, though every six months he asked her if she was ready to return home. Her answer was always an emphatic no.
He couldn’t go back himself. For the longest time he wouldn’t tell her why, and she’d asked often, but his answer was always the same: that she wouldn’t understand because she was
too young. The only thing he would tell her was that before he’d left home he and her mother had come up with a story to account for his departure from England—he’d gone to the West Indies to oversee some of their investments and was in no hurry to come home to dreary, damp England.
When she turned seventeen, she pointed out she wasn’t too young anymore. He sat her down to tell her the sordid tale, and that was when she started hating the Rathbans, the odious family who had threatened her father’s life and split up her family. An indiscretion led to a duel, which he’d won, with a nobleman named Henry Rathban. His opponent’s family had been enraged over the outcome and had promised to ruin him and his family in scandal if he wasn’t punished. They’d lost a member of their family that day; his family had to lose a member, too. Him.
“Exile from England was the Rathbans’ choice,” her father explained. “It was more lenient than ‘an eye for an eye.’ It could have been much worse. They accused me of deliberately committing murder. Albert Rathban, the eldest, is an earl, but the family is descended from dukes. They are powerful enough to have filed those murder charges against me or just killed me themselves and gotten away with it. You and your sisters would never make good matches if that scandal broke. And my marriage was over anyway, so I didn’t mind leaving to protect our good name.”
“It wasn’t your indiscretion, was it?”
It didn’t look as if her father would answer that. A few minutes passed while she waited, but then he said, “No.”
Well, that said it all, and she was so glad that she’d never chosen to go home. She had been missing her sisters—and occasionally even her mother—but not anymore. But she and her
father had always agreed that once she was of age, she would return to England.
But she loved living with her father in the Highlands. He bred stock, both horses and red-haired cattle, just to keep busy here. It kept her busy, too, since he let her help. The two shire horses he’d taken north with them, he’d mixed with Scottish mares from Clydesdale. Most of the offspring didn’t end up as tall as the shires, but one white albino did. Vanessa claimed that one for herself and named him Snow King. At least Snow would be leaving with her. But maybe she didn’t have to leave. . . .
She ran her fingers through her copper locks, which she’d cut short for the journey because she refused to ride in a dress and didn’t want people staring at her in disapproval when they saw her in britches. She saw the shadow approaching. It had to be her father. The two servants who lived with them, a married couple, never came near the cliffs. She turned and saw him, his dark red hair, which had grown long in recent months, whipping in the breeze. There was a merry glint in his pale blue eyes, the same color as hers.
“It’s Thursday,” William said. “Do we fish today—one last time, Nessi?”
Yet another thing she was going to miss, hearing him call her by that nickname. He’d given it to her during their first month here when they’d traveled around the Highlands looking for horses and cattle to buy for breeding and two servants who would be willing to live so far from any towns. One of the towns they stopped in was near Loch Ness. There they heard the legend about a monster that lived in the lake, fondly referred to by the locals as Nessi. They even camped out on the
water’s edge for one night to see if they could spot the water dragon so many people swore they’d seen.
They laughed about it in the morning because the beast hadn’t made an appearance for them, but William teased her with the nickname Nessi after that because she could be as fierce as a dragon at times.
As for fishing, she answered with a resounding, “Of course! If the boat survived the tides.”
She grinned as she jumped to her feet. Every week, except in the freezing months of winter, they would take that little boat into deep waters and bring home fish for dinner. They often joked that the little rowboat would get smashed against the cliffs, but it never did because her father staked it down so well. But they did always have to empty it of seawater before they took it out.
“Let’s go fishing now while the sun is still bright.” As she walked toward the path that led down to the rocky shore, she glanced at her father beside her. “I don’t have to leave this year just because I turned nineteen.”
He sighed. “I let you get away with that reasoning last year only because the twins will be having their official come-out this spring, and if that’s something you feel like doing, you’ll probably feel more comfortable doing it with them. D’you really want to hide up here any longer when so many adventures await you in the south? You were eager to spread your wings right up until last spring when it was time for you to go. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you are afraid.”
She stopped to hug him. “The only thing I’m afraid of is my heart breaking when I have to leave you here alone. It’s been six years, Papa. Maybe the Rathbans have forgotten about you and you can finally return to England.”
“They lost a brother. That’s not something people ever forget. Even after you girls are safely married, a scandal like that will still hurt you and your new families. I’m not willing to take that chance.”
“But it was a legitimate duel!”
“The Rathbans can make it appear otherwise. Besides, I agreed to this.”
She loathed that family, especially the eldest, Albert, the one who had set the terms of their revenge against her father. There had to be something she could do to get them to agree that her father had suffered enough after six years of exile. Of course, she couldn’t do that until she actually went to England.
“And besides,” he added with a grin. “If you do end up deciding that you want a husband and children, you don’t want to be labeled an old maid and be ignored by all the best catches.”
She laughed. “You know that won’t happen. How many times have you told me I’m beautiful? Or were you only teasing? Perhaps I am ugly and that’s why you don’t keep mirrors in the house.”
He snorted. “You think I didn’t see you admiring yourself in the mirror in that shop in Fraserburgh last month? You know exactly how pretty you turned out.”
“I was admiring the new britches I just bought.”
She tsked. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so your opinion is biased by love.” She held up a staying finger when it looked like he would argue. “It doesn’t matter, and besides, I’m not interested in marrying now or when I become an old maid.”
“Probably not ever. You’re too independent.”
She could tell he was teasing, but she was serious when she
said, “The only way I would wed a man is if there were a signed contract that stipulates my intended can’t tell me what to do, or touch my money. It would be a rare man who would agree to that.”
“True, darling daughter, but you would be surprised what a man will do for love.”
He smiled wistfully, making Vanessa wonder if he was thinking of her mother. He’d loved Kathleen, Countess of Dawton, enough to defer to her wishes and live in her home instead of moving her into his. He hadn’t made the concession because her father’s title, Marquis of Dawton, was more lofty than his. He was the Earl of Ketterham, after all, and richer than his wife.
“And you’re an exceptional young woman, well educated and a natural at handling horses and pistols,” he added proudly. “You also know I was only teasing with that ‘probably not ever.’ When you fall in love—and I wouldn’t want you to marry without it—I don’t doubt the man will agree to anything just to have you by his side. But I’ve prepared you for more than the circumscribed life of a lady. I wish I could have done the same for your sisters, but your mother refused to budge when it came to the social rules she herself was raised by. Now that you’ve come of age, you have a substantial income, enough money to start that horse-breeding stable you’ve always dreamed of, though that will be much easier after you marry. So reunite with your mother and sisters and go with them to London to break a few hearts first.”
She laughed. Her father made it seem as if all her dreams could come true. While she still had her doubts, she couldn’t deny it might be fun to be twirled around a ballroom by a few dashing lords. And once she reentered fashionable society she
would undoubtedly cross paths with the Rathbans. She had to figure out a way to make them end the vendetta against her father so he could go home, too.
When they reached the shore, they stopped short, staring at the pieces of the rowboat scattered about. Vanessa started to laugh. William soon joined her.
“It was old, it was bound to happen eventually,” he said.
“I’m glad it succumbed. I would have worried about you taking it out by yourself. Promise you won’t replace it, at least not until I come to visit.”
“If you’ll promise you won’t cry when you leave.”
“I don’t cry,” she said, but added with a grin, “What do I look like, a girl?”