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Authors: Lecia Cornwall

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BOOK: Once Upon a Highland Autumn
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“Anon?” Catriona asked.

“It means now,” Kit said. He reached out and plucked the letter from her hand, and Catriona headed for the stairs at last.

“Then I’ll just go and put the kettle on.” She turned and gave him a slow-eyed smile. “D’you need someone to scrub your back?”

“I have a valet for that,” Kit said, and shut the door before she could ask about Mr. Leslie’s title, or his marital status.

“The young lady seems quite smitten, my lord,” Leslie teased as he laid out Kit’s evening clothes.

“With you, I hope,” Kit said, peeling off his shirt and tossing it to the valet.

“Oh, not at all,” Leslie said blithely. “You must be growing used to it. I have seen that look on the faces of countless other young ladies, many times, where you are concerned. I daresay you shall not lack for feminine company even here in the wilds of Scotland.

Kit frowned. “That’s the one thing I do not want. I came here to spend time alone.” When the hot water arrived, Kit got into the tub, and Leslie added the kettle of hot water. “If any female asks after me while we are here, you are to say nothing, is that clear?”

“Oh, perfectly clear, my lord,” Leslie replied. “It’s just that—well, I didn’t really need to say much at all. The innkeeper’s daughter seemed to have the whole story about you.”

Kit looked up from the hot water. “Oh? What did she say?”

“Apparently, there are a number of unmarried women—lassies, I think they call them hereabouts—who are intrigued to meet you. Miss Catriona said that if you do not go to them, they will come to you. I do believe they have started arriving. There is quite a congregation downstairs. The innkeeper is taking wagers as to which lady you will marry. The smith has already been alerted, in case it’s a hasty match, and so has the local churchman, if it’s to be a more formal affair. They’ve put the lassies in the tearoom for your perusal. There were six of them when I last looked in.”

Kit felt his balls shrivel in utter dread. He looked at the door of his room, wondered if the lock was strong enough. “Can it not be put about just as easily that I have no wish to marry?”

“Would they believe that, my lord?” Leslie asked. “The ladies in England do not.”

“We’ll move tomorrow,” Kit said.

“Very good, my lord. I’ll start packing. Will we be returning to England?”

Kit considered. “No.” He soaped his chest, rinsed it, then dipped his head. “We shall simply find other lodgings. Inquire if there’s a reliable man of affairs in Inverness. In fact, if there is, I’ll see him at once.”

“This evening?” Leslie asked, his face falling. “But Lady Fraser—”

“Tomorrow is soon enough.” Or was it? Kit had a moment of horror. “Leslie, is Lady Eleanor Fraser a young woman?” He had accepted the invitation because Dundrummie was very near to Glen Dorian, and he had questions.

“I’m afraid not, my lord. I understand she is quite an elderly lady.”

Kit relaxed. “Good.” He would face no surprises tonight, then, and the old lady would certainly be as sweet and benign as his own grandmother had been. Old ladies knew all the local stories, the history of a place. Why, Lady Fraser might even remember Culloden, and Nathaniel, and Mairi MacIntosh, if she was very old indeed. The chance of that was slim, of course, but perhaps her mother had told her tales, or her grandmother.

He rose from the tub and took the towel Leslie held out, and considered how to ask as diplomatically about the possibility of hidden treasure at Glen Dorian.

An hour later, Kit was dressed and ready to go. “You look very well, if I do say so, my lord,” Leslie said, as he always did, admiring his handiwork.

Kit cast a last glance at the flyblown looking glass. “I am no doubt overdressed for these parts.”

“The innkeeper suggested you might wear a plaid, my lord, but I could not imagine that. Better to appear as you would at home, I think.”

“Quite right, Leslie.” He picked up his hat and gloves. “I shall be back before midnight.” Elderly ladies retired early, he recalled, and he wanted to make an early start tomorrow.

“I’ll be waiting, my lord. Shall I peruse the rest of the invitations we have received thus far and determine what might be needed in the way of proper dress? If there’s a shooting party, or a ball, or a picnic, then—”

“We’re not here for that, Leslie. This is an adventure, remember? Adventures don’t require proper dress. Quite the opposite.” He liked that idea, of working in shirtsleeves, without a cravat or a coat, but Leslie looked horrified. “The shooting season is a fortnight away yet, so there’s plenty of time,” he said to placate his valet. “There’s a list on the table by the window of things that I’ll require. Be so good as to ask our host where they can be obtained, will you?”

Kit left the room. The sound of doves on the staircase made him pause. No doubt the birds made their home under the eaves of the old inn. How quaint, he thought, until one of the creatures let out a squeal that tightened his chest.

It wasn’t doves—it was Miss Catriona Fraser, the innkeeper’s lovely daughter, standing at the bottom of the steps with a dozen other young girls—lassies—with all of them cooing or squealing besottedly at the sight of him.

It’s not that Kit wasn’t used to such attention. Sadly, he was. Women had regarded him thus since he inherited his title. He was handsome, rich, and eligible—a marriage prize. He wished he could go back to the days when he was all but invisible to females who wanted anything beyond a mere flirtation, but he was an earl now, and infinitely more desirable as a husband than anything else. Even a simple conversation might be misconstrued. Of course he appreciated a pretty face and a lush female body as much as any man. He just didn’t want to find himself as unhappily wed as Arabella. Try as he might, it seemed an impossible thing to convince the world that he was not looking for a wife—or a casual tumble in the innkeeper’s hayloft, for that matter.

He was here to search for a treasure, and solve a mystery.

“Good evening,” he said as he passed the gaggle, being careful not to make eye contact with any of them. He hurried into his coach and lowered the blinds, and did not open them again until they had left the village.

Dundrummie Castle was square, solid, and brown—a sensible, sturdy place. Kit felt a moment’s disappointment. He had expected—hoped, rather—for something wild, barbarous, and ancient, a clan seat, or a warrior’s fortress, but this castle looked as bland as what it was—the home of an elderly lady, right down to the roses that grew in manicured beds beside the door.

Ah, but the door—that at least was a thing to fire the imagination. It was ancient, scarred by weather and fire. It did not offer a welcome. The black iron studs warned away visitors and invaders alike—especially English ones, he imagined.

He was equally surprised to be welcomed by a proper English butler, in proper plummy English tones. He had expected a Scottish servant, squint-eyed and suspicious of any Sassenach who still had the temerity to knock after setting eyes on the forbidding portal.

Instead, Kit was welcomed inside, and escorted to the drawing room—a very English drawing room, with the kind of décor his mother would have found tasteful. It was hardly the ancient Highland hall Kit had hoped for.

“The Earl of Rossington,” the butler intoned.

Two females rose at once from a pair of chairs that would have been very much at home in the Prince Regent’s own drawing room.

“Good evening, my lord. How kind of you to come,” the younger of the two women gushed, a lady past the blush of youth, yet not yet old. She rushed across the room to grip his hands, as if he were a long lost and much missed relation.

It was then that he saw the all-too-familiar look of speculation in her eyes, the quick assessment of his worth based on his looks, his bearing, and the expensive cut of his clothing, from cravat pin to evening shoes.

He’d seen that look often enough to recognize it for what it was—a matchmaking mama appraising an eligible bachelor. His spine prickled. Somewhere about, tucked away and ready to be sprung upon him, this woman had a daughter in need of a husband. Now Kit wondered if the formidable door was meant to keep men in, rather than out. He had the urge to call the butler back again, take his hat, and flee.

“I’m the Countess of Glenlorne, Lady Devorguilla McNabb. My daughters will be down in a few minutes,” she said, her voice honey sweet.

His shoulders tensed. There was more than one. How many? He wished he’d come armed.

“Devorguilla’s the
Countess of Glenlorne,” the older lady said with a devil’s grin, and a very English accent. Still, she proudly adjusted the tartan shawl over her shoulders as she came forward. “She’s in exile. Her stepson is the Earl of Glenlorne, and they cannot stand the sight of one another, so she’s come to stay with me. I’m Lady Eleanor Fraser, Devorguilla’s sister-in-law, and mistress of this castle.”

“Eleanor, what will he think?” Devorguilla admonished in a light tone, though her gaze was hard enough to kill a lesser woman than Eleanor Fraser.

Lady Eleanor swept a glance over him from head to foot. “He’ll think as he wishes, I suppose. Do come and sit down, Lord Rossington, and allow me to bid you a proper welcome. Will you take a dram of whisky?”

“Thank you, I will. Dundrummie is—” He couldn’t bring himself to say charming, or elegant, or evocative. It was homey.

Eleanor grinned like a pirate. “Yes, isn’t it?” She turned to the dowager countess. “He’s fair of face, and his manners are good.”

Kit could almost smell the danger he was in. Lady Devorguilla looked anxiously at the door. No doubt awaiting the young ladies upstairs primping for him. He imagined the gaggle of lassies at the inn, wondered if he faced worse yet here. Upstairs, a score of marriageable chits were even now dreaming of the moment when he would be struck dumb by the breathtaking sight of one or another of them in the doorway, so much so that he would fall to his knees and propose to one, or even all of them. Was that legal in Scotland? He shifted uncomfortably, and gratefully accepted the tumbler of whisky the butler presented to him on a silver tray, tempted to ask the man to leave the decanter within reach.

The clock on the mantel ticked. Lady Devorguilla sipped from a small glass of sherry, and stared at him. He was beginning to wonder if she ever blinked. Lady Eleanor studied him, too, with the air of one expecting a wondrous piece of theater to be enacted here tonight. Kit’s sense of dread deepened.

Given the countess’s title, the young lady was obviously the daughter and sister of an earl, and judging by her mother’s gown, she had been brought up to marry well. She was, of course, the perfect bride, schooled in flirtation, social niceties, and the proper duties of a wife, mother, and countess. She would be utterly charming, and within the course of the evening, she—or her mother—would work the size of her dowry into the conversation, along with any particular talents the young lady might have. His lips rippled, and he resisted the urge to tug his ear, fearing it would shortly be abused by a ghastly display of singing by yet another tone-deaf debutant. He looked miserably at the piano in the corner, ready and waiting, like a rack in a medieval torture chamber.

Worst of all, he would quite likely leave without any information at all about Glen Dorian.

“She has sisters, as well, you know, our Megan,” Eleanor Fraser offered unbidden. “Have you any unwed brothers or cousins?” The hair on the back of Kit’s neck rose. Was his whole family in danger of being hunted down and wed against their will?

“My only brother wed just two months past, my lady.”

“Pity. If he’d waited, it might have made Devorguilla’s task a great deal simpler,” Lady Eleanor said.

Devorguilla’s cheeks reddened. “Margaret—her name is Margaret,” the countess insisted. “Megan’s that is. She is called Margaret. What part of England are you from, my lord?”

Here it was. “My principal seat is in Derbyshire,” he said, sipping his whisky. Whisky truly was a delightful tipple—quite relaxing.

Her eyes lit. “How wonderful.”

“Yes, it’s quite pleasant at this time of year,” he said, and wished himself there, with Arabella, her unruly children, and all.

“Is it—large?” She ran her eyes over him as she asked, and her cheeks pinked slightly.

The whisky made him giddy. He gave her a roguish smile. “Very.” He cast a quick glance at the amber liquid in his glass, and wondered if it was drugged.

But it seemed he could say nothing wrong in the countess’s eyes. She laid a hand on her heart and smiled. “Now where could Meg—
—be?” she mused and rose to her feet. “I think I’ll go and see.”

Kit watched as she hurried out of the room.

“I understand you’ve been asking about Glen Dorian,” Lady Eleanor said when her sister-in-law left.

“I am hoping to rent it,” he confirmed.

“Rent it?” Eleanor asked. “Why on earth would you want to do that?” He noted the sharp light in the lady’s eyes as she waited for his reply.

“My great-uncle spent a few months here, many years ago. He mentioned Glen Dorian.”

Her gray brows rose. “I see. Soldier then, was he?”

He tightened his grip on the glass in his hand. “He was.”

“Do you know about the curse?”

“Curse?” he said, keeping his tone even.

Lady Eleanor leaned forward. “Aye—they say that Mairi MacIntosh put a curse on the glen. She left her heart buried in the rubble of the old castle, and swore that none would ever remain within those walls unless they are pure of heart, and loved truly. The old stories say there are great rewards waiting for those folk, and terrible trouble for anyone else who sets foot there. Do you believe in legends and curses and the like, Lord Rossington?”

He met the amusement in her eyes, and for a moment, he did believe, felt the power of unseen hands, heard a whisper in his mind, a soft sigh, drawing him in. “Of course not,” he said, giving her a charming smile.

She sat back. “Another pity. Glen Dorian Castle won’t welcome you, being English. It was English troops that burned it after Culloden. The MacIntoshes fled, went into hiding, disappeared one by one, all save Mairi. She died in the glen, waiting, hoping. No one has lived there since.” She raised her glass to him. “I wish you luck if you plan to stay.”

BOOK: Once Upon a Highland Autumn
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