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Authors: Lecia Cornwall

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BOOK: Once Upon a Highland Autumn
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Her sister panted like a hound as she tried to catch her breath. “I’ve been looking for you for nearly an hour. Muira says it’s nearly time to go, and you’re not even half-packed. You won’t have a thing to wear when we get to Dundrummie.”

Megan scanned the valley once more and ignored her sister. “I’m just saying good-bye to Glenlorne. At least for now.”

“Better to say farewell to people than places,” Sorcha said. “I’ve already been to the village, telling folk I’ll be back come spring.” She grinned mischievously at her sister. “You won’t though—you’ll be in London, bothered by the attentions of all those daft English lairds at your first Season.”

Megan felt a rush of irritation. “Lords, Sorcha, not lairds—and stop teasing,” she commanded, and flounced down the steep path that led back to the castle.

Sorcha picked a flower and skipped beside her sister like a mountain goat. One by one, she plucked at the petals. “How many English
lords
will Megan McNabb kiss?” she asked, dancing around her sister. “One . . . two . . . three . . .”

“Stop it,” Megan said, and snatched the flower away. She wouldn’t kiss anyone but Eachann. But her sister picked another flower.

“How many English lords will come and ask Alec for Meggy’s hand in marriage?” she sang, but Megan snatched that blossom too, before Sorcha could begin counting again.

“I shan’t go to London, and I will never marry an English lord,” she said fiercely.

“We’ll see what Mama says to that,” Sorcha said. “And Muira would say never is a very long time indeed.”

Megan stopped. “What exactly did Muira say?” Old Muira had the sight, or so it was said.

Sorcha grinned like a pirate, and rubbed a dusty hand over her face, leaving a dark smudge. “I thought you didn’t believe in the old ways.”

Megan rolled her eyes, let her gaze travel up the smooth green slopes of the hills to their rocky crests and thought of the legends and tales, the old stories, the belief that magic made its home in the glen.

Of course she believed.

She believed so much that she had decided to become the keeper of the clan’s tales when Glenlorne’s ancient
seannachaidh
had died last winter without leaving a successor. She loved to hear the old stories, and she planned to write them down so they’d never be lost. But for now, in Sorcha’s annoying company, she raised her chin. Now was hardly the time to be fanciful. “Of course I don’t believe in magic. I think being sensible is far more useful to get you what you want, not counting flower petals or relying on the seeings of an old woman.”

“Muira foresaw an Englishman, and a treasure,” Sorcha said, not deterred one whit by talk of sense. “Right there in the smoke of the fire, clear as day.”

Megan felt her mouth dry. “For me?” she asked through stiff lips.

“She didn’t know that. For one of us, surely.”

Megan let out a sigh of relief. Perhaps she was safe. If only Muira had seen Eachann, riding home, his heart light, his purse heavy, with that fine gold ring in his pocket. “That’s the trouble with Muira’s premonitions. She sees things, but can’t say what they mean.”

“Still, a treasure would be nice,” Sorcha chirped. “A chest of gold, or a cache of pearls and rubies—”

“Not if it comes with an Englishman attached,” Megan muttered.

“Och, I’m not worried. I’m only twelve. He won’t be coming for me, that’s certain. But you’re nearly twenty. According to Muira, it’s far past time you were wed. Muira says you should have a dozen bairns by now.”

Megan felt her cheeks heat. “Muira says,” she grumbled. She and Eachann had spoken of the babes they would have—four or five strong lads to take after their father, and two or three pretty little lasses. She felt her heart quicken with longing. Perhaps she could ask Muira to look again, be sure—They’d reached the path beside the loch, a cool and shady haven out of the sun. Megan stopped and stared out at the dark water, and wondered if Eachann was staring out across a very different body of water, and likewise longing for her.

“D’you suppose we have time for a swim?” Sorcha asked, dabbling her toes in the water. “’Tis uncommonly hot today.”

Megan looked at her sister’s flushed face, took note of the smudges of dirt. Tomorrow they’d be at Dundrummie, and Mama would expect—insist—that they behave like ladies. There’d be no swimming, no running free in the hills. Sorcha would be kept indoors learning English, and Megan and Alanna would be given long hours of instruction in dancing and deportment, and be fitted for a grand wardrobe of stiff, horrid English gowns for their upcoming London Season—and corsets, tied tight enough to cut a lass in two.

The loch beckoned, and Megan grinned at her sister as she kicked off her shoes and pulled her gown over her head. “Aye, why not?” she said. “I’ll race you to the black rock.” She dove into the chill of the water, came up gasping, the hills wavering through the drops on her lashes. Pleasure, pure sweet pleasure.

She grinned and dove again. Whatever the future might hold, there was still joy to be had today.

 

C
HAPTER
T
WO

Bellemont Park, Derbyshire, England, June 1817

L
ord Christopher Linwood paced the drawing room of Bellemont Park, his favorite and most elegant manor, and the home he would soon be forced to vacate.

“Am I not the Earl of Rossington, and head of this family?” he demanded of his mother, who sat placidly by the window, embroidering.

She glanced up as she drew the thread through the fine linen. “Of course you are, dear. No one is in any doubt of that.”

He swept a hand around him to indicate the magnificent room, the gilded plasterwork, the fine paintings, the expensive carpets, clocks, and furnishings. “And is a man’s home not his castle, his sanctuary, his inviolable right?”

The countess took another stitch. “Indeed, but alas, you are a bachelor, Kit.”

“What has that got to do with it?”

“I’m simply saying that if you were married, your wife would not countenance your siblings pushing in on you as they’ve done. You could have said no—your wife, if you had one—most certainly would have. But as a bachelor, your home—or homes, in this case—are wide open. What need has a single gentleman for an entire castle to himself, let alone five?”

Kit frowned at her, but she had turned her attention to a delicate stitch and didn’t notice. “They belong to me,” he said, knowing he sounded peevish, but it was too late to put his foot down now, as he should have done weeks ago—a year and a half ago, in fact, when he’d inherited the title, and the mess that went with it. “I pay the bills and give my siblings generous allowances besides. Arabella is married with a home of her own, if I might point out, and—”

The countess looked up at her son in surprise, and let her embroidery hoop fall into her lap. “Now really, Kit, be reasonable. How can you expect your sister to remain with Collingwood after such an insult? He must be taught a lesson, and doing without his wife for a few weeks will do him a great deal of good. In fact, it will do them both good.”

“Every day there’s a new and unforgiveable insult between them, but it’s never clear just what the insult is. This time she’s vowing never to return to him at all, threatening to remain here at Bellemont for good,” Kit said.

“Nonsense,” the countess muttered. “As soon as Collingwood makes a proper apology, she’ll fall back into his arms like a ripe plum. You needn’t fear—it won’t take long. By Christmas, at the worst.”

Kit’s brows shot upward, and he stopped pacing to gape at his mother. “I’m to be locked out of my home until Christmas?”

Her eyes slid away from his. “Well, I’m sure Arabella will not let it go beyond the start of the Season next spring under any circumstances.”

Christopher felt his chest cave in. “Next spring? That’s hardly a few weeks—it’s nearly a year.”

The countess forced a smile. “Be a dear and ring for tea, will you? The weather is hot today, even for July.” She watched as he did as she asked, and frowned when he gave the bell a killing yank. “I still say this is your own fault. You could have offered to make peace between them, or you might stay here at Bellemont and convince your sister to return to her husband sooner. You
are
the head of the family.”

Kit frowned. Head of the family—he was his father’s second-born son, meant for the army, not the title, until nearly two years ago. There’d been an accident, and both his father and his brother were killed, leaving Kit as the new Earl of Rossington. He remembered his sister pointing at him with stunned surprise. “
Kit
is going to be the earl?” she’d crowed, and dissolved into laughter at the idea. “What a disaster!”

A disaster indeed. Quite suddenly he’d gone from the son no one paid much attention to, to the man expected to provide leadership, guidance, and all the necessities of life to his family. The army career for which he’d been groomed had been out of the question—he had
responsibilities
. It had become one of his least favorite words. It wasn’t that he was weak—he may not have been raised to be the earl, but he knew what he liked and what he wanted. It was just that standing up to his powerful mother, his loud sister, and his needy younger brother was rather like telling a high wind not to blow—it would blow whether you wanted it or not, and the only recourse was to hang on and weather each gale as it came.

It was well and good for his mother to suggest he step in, but just how was he supposed to solve Arabella’s problems? Her marital spats were legendary, and she and her husband had the hottest tempers, and the most stubborn dispositions in the entire English aristocracy. He could, he supposed,
order
her to go back to her husband, but any further unhappiness between the Collingwoods would then become his fault, and he would rather thrust his hand into a hornet’s nest than put himself in the middle of their feud. There was no point.

“As you said, Mother, I’m a bachelor. What advice could I possibly give her?”

His mother smiled. “Then go to Shearwater, and enjoy a few weeks there.”

His second house—a jewel box by the sea. “Can’t. Alan is spending his honeymoon there. He’s renovating his own house, and it won’t be ready until November.”

“Yes, that would be awkward, squatting in the middle of your brother’s wedding trip that way. Well what about Linwood House?” she asked.

“Go to London? At this time of year?” Kit said. “It’s too hot and too dull to be in town at the height of summer.” He crossed to the fireplace, gazed up at the painting above it, a lovely oil of Coalfax Castle, his fourth estate. “There’s always—”

His mother shot to her feet. “Don’t say it! Coalfax is mine until Christmas as it is every year. I’ve already made all my arrangements.”

“But the dower house at Coalfax was lavishly done over just last year. I remember the bills. Surely you’d be quite comfortable there.”

She sent him a baleful look. “It was two years ago, and it’s too small. My cousin Winnifred is coming to stay as usual, and we will need enough space to house us both, each with a wing of our own, just in case.”

“In case? The same thing happens every year—Winnifred arrives, and there are tears of joy and several days of gossip, companionship, and peace. Then, the small things begin to irritate you both. Before long, you are not speaking at all, and you live in separate wings for the rest of her visit. Why do you insist on spending half the year together? You fight like cats. Would an exchange of letters not suffice? In fact there’s still time to write to her now, and tell her she can’t come this year.”

His mother’s chin jutted stubbornly. “How unfeeling you are, Kit. She’s my cousin, and we are both lonely widows. Of course we must see each other. Your company would not be welcome. You’d find us dull in the extreme. What about Turnstone Abbey?”

Turnstone was Kit’s last property, in the north of England, tucked away in the Cheviot Hills. He loved the place, but it was currently undergoing extensive and much needed renovations, and was therefore uninhabitable at the moment.

That left nowhere at all for him to live.

He considered his options as Swift, the faithful butler who had been with the family since Kit’s father had been earl, brought in the tea tray. Swift was a fixture, as much as the fountain in the rose garden was, or the stone temple of Apollo on the hill, or the family portraits in the gallery—he’d been here long enough to warrant having his own face immortalized with the rest of the family. Swift ensured everything was in order, knew the family’s habits and preferences, and kept every nuance of life at Bellemont Park running smoothly. Kit adored the old fellow.

“Perhaps I could simply remain here,” Kit ventured, his eyes on the butler’s calm, sober, reassuringly bland face.

His mother poured out. “Perhaps you could indeed—it wouldn’t be so bad with Arabella’s company, now would it? She’s bringing the girls, and she’s bound to invite company. Perhaps even a potential bride for you.”

Kit felt jittery dread creep up his spine. Since the day he had inherited the title, his sister had been tossing her unwed friends at him, or their unwed friends, or even the eligible daughters of vague acquaintances, with horrifying regularity.

“I shall forbid her to have guests,” he said.

His mother’s lips pinched at that. “It’s your house, Kit,” she said again. “You may set whatever rules you like, I suppose, but Arabella won’t like it.”

Of course she wouldn’t. She’d make it sheer and unending hell.

He pounded his fist into his palm. “If she’s going to stay here, then I will be the one to decide the rules this time.” He ignored his mother’s smirk.

Perhaps it
wouldn’t
be so bad. Bellemont was an exceedingly large house, and it was summer. With the windows open, and his own space, he would hardly know his sister and her five children were even here. He would refuse to allow unmarried female guests to set one hopeful toe over his doorstep. He was resilient—he could make it work for a few weeks. It wouldn’t be any worse than it would have been if he had joined the army and marched away to fight in Spain, been forced to share a billet. Not that his sister’s opinions weren’t as sharp as bayonets, and as cruelly thrust upon her victims.

BOOK: Once Upon a Highland Autumn
3.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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