Authors: Julia London
Critical acclaim for the vividly passionate novels of
“London is one of the very best.”
“A triumph of wit and passion.”
“London’s characters come alive on every page and will steal your heart.”
“Touching and terrific.”
“Laugh-out-loud funny and heartwarming.”
“Complex and emotionally powerful.”
—The Romance Reader
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SNOWY NIGHT WITH A HIGHLANDER
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THE LAST DEBUTANTE
Available March 2013 from Pocket Books
ady Gilbert, a self-proclaimed great admirer of dogs, was compelled to bring her talented terrier to an afternoon tea party in Mayfair one cold afternoon, where she commenced to command the little dog to perform many canine feats. Up on his hind legs he went to beg eagerly for a treat, over he rolled at the lilting suggestion of his owner. And the
pièce de résistance
: he leapt vertically two feet into the air and latched on to a piece of leather Lady Gilbert dangled before him, then hung there, twisting and turning in his determination to have it. When Lady Gilbert at last relented, the little dog strutted proudly with the leather in his mouth, pausing only to lift his leg and mark Lady Osbourne’s hem.
In the ensuing mêlée, the Earl of Lambourne’s London butler appeared in the salon and informed the tea’s hostess, the earl’s sister, Lady Fiona Haines, that two official-looking gentlemen had called and insisted on having a word.
Fiona received them in the drawing room. She was a bit flushed, having tried to help Lady Gilbert corral the culprit, which led only to the toppling of a chair and crystal vase. She explained that her brother, the earl, was away just now, as she tucked a strand of rich brown hair behind her ear. Away indefinitely, she added.
Forever, as far as she knew, given the scandal brewing in London.
Fiona loved her brother, Jack, fiercely, but she was aware that he was an inveterate rake, both in their native Scotland and in London—and perhaps as far away as Ireland. She was also aware that Jack had been accused—falsely and unjustly, according to him—of having committed adultery with the Princess of Wales. The Prince of Wales intended to exploit that accusation, if he could manage it, in a very public trial of divorce. That could be devastating for Jack, for as everyone knew, adultery with any woman was morally reprehensible, but adultery with the Princess of Wales was a highly treasonable offense.
As Jack wrote in his hastily penned letter to Fiona from Eastchurch Abbey, he’d rather be hanged than spend his life in Newgate, and that he’d be in Scotland until “this bloody bad business was done.”
Fiona glossed over these small details when she said to the gentlemen Woodburn and Hallaby, “I canna say when he might return, but I should be delighted to give him your card the moment he does.”
The two gentlemen, who did indeed look rather official, exchanged a look with one another. “Forgive me, madam, but Lord Lambourne is in a spot of trouble.”
Fiona’s heart fluttered a bit. “Oh?”
“If I may speak indelicately?” Woodburn asked.
Fiona swallowed and nodded.
“The Prince of Wales has been egregiously offended by the rumors that your brother, his friend, may have lain with the Princess of Wales. He is determined to bring swift justice to
who might have compromised the rightful succession of his daughter to the throne.”
She must not have appeared to be suitably alarmed, because Sir Woodburn stepped forward. “It is a very serious offense, my lady. If the earl is found to be guilty, he could very well be sentenced to hang for his crime.”
A small swell of panic filled Fiona’s breast, but she managed to remain calmly inscrutable. “That is very distressing news, sir, although I am confident my brother would be found innocent of these ridiculous accusations were it to come to that. Nevertheless, I canna imagine what you’d have me do. My innocent, virtuous brother is away presently.” She mustered what she hoped was the sincerest of smiles.
“Perhaps there is something you might do, my lady,” Lord Hallaby interjected regally. “The king does not necessarily believe
the ugly rumors that swirl around London. In fact, he, too, considers Lambourne to be his friend and remarks with great fondness the memories he has of a royal hunt a few years ago at Balmoral.”
“How very kind of his majesty.”
“The king would not like to see the earl involved in what has all the markings of being a very public and ugly scandal,” Hallaby continued. “The king would like to think of his friend tucked safely away until this wretched ordeal is at an end.”
If she understood them correctly, the prince would have Jack hauled to London and tried for adultery, while his father, the king, hoped Jack would remain tucked away to avoid it?
“The king is hopeful,” Hallaby said very low, “that you might impress on your brother the serious nature of the offense of which he has been accused and suggest that perhaps he might move deeper into Scotland. You know—into the hills there.”
“The Highlands,” Fiona said, and wished she could sit down to think a moment. How did they suppose she would warn him? “I appreciate his majesty’s concern,” she continued uncertainly, “but I canna say anything to my brother at present as he is away.”
Woodburn looked at Hallaby, then at Fiona. “The Christmas season is almost upon us, is it not? The king hopes that when you travel to join your family, you might find your brother and bear him this message—before the prince’s men find him.”
To Edinburgh? The wanted her to go all the way to
“I do not wish to alarm you, madam, but the prince’s men are looking for your brother as we speak,” Woodburn said softly. “It is the king’s genuine hope that you find him first and warn him properly. His highness should very much like to see this delicate investigation put to rest as quickly as possible. Perhaps you might want to depart at dawn’s first light.”
“Dawn’s first light?” she echoed weakly, her mind reeling.
“A traveling chaise will be made available to you and your maid.” Woodburn smiled thinly. “Good journey, Lady Fiona.” He bowed his head and turned on his heel. With a quick smile for her, Hallaby was right behind him, leaving a dazed Fiona behind them.
Wasn’t it peculiar how one’s life could change in a mere few moments?
he 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.
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.