Authors: Cathy Maxwell
Tags: #Romance, #Historical
The Bride Says Maybe
The Brides of Wishmore
For my friend, Kim Adams Lowe
I am wealthy in my friends.
The Tay Valley
February 8, 1807
hen one is twelve, the whole sum of the world is
captured in what can be seen and touched—and a word like “love” means nothing.
Lady Tara Davidson had not realized that someday her half sister Lady Aileen would wish to leave Annefield. It was their home—and a good one to Tara’s way of thinking.
But Aileen had left. She was off to London with their father to be presented in Court and to make her way into society.
She was off to find love because it is what Aileen said she wanted . . . and Tara was left behind.
Her sister was the only family that cared for her. She had the servants. Mrs. Watson and Ingold always kept an eye on her, and there were her tutors, but Aileen had been blood.
And now, what was Tara to do?
There would be no more evenings spent reading Shakespeare’s plays aloud. No more sharing of secrets or receiving advice from the older sister she so adored.
“It may seem overwhelming now, but one day, you will want to do what I’m doing,” Aileen had promised her. “Even if it means leaving people you care about.”
Tara didn’t believe that could be true. She’d never leave someone who idolized her as much as she did Aileen.
Aileen had hugged Tara close. “Please look after Folly for me.”
“I’ll ride that silly mare every day.”
“Thank you. And, Tara, we shall see each other soon.” With those words, Aileen gave Tara’s shoulders one last squeeze and rushed from the room.
Tara had watched the coach pull away. She was accustomed to seeing her father drive off. He could barely stand staying four days in a row at Annefield.
He preferred his London friends to his daughters. His neglect had never hurt until the moment when he’d taken the only person Tara had trusted with him.
Loneliness filled her. She moped for days, praying Aileen would have a change of mind and return. She didn’t.
Finally, she decided to go out to the stables and comfort the one other creature at Annefield who must miss Aileen as much as she did—Folly the mare. She had promised to ride the horse every day, and so she would.
Old Dickie, the head groom, greeted her. He’d been speaking to a young boy of about her age. He must be a new stable lad.
“Going for a ride, my lady?” Old Dickie asked.
“My sister wishes for me to keep Folly in good shape for when she returns.”
“That’s a good plan. Here now is a new stable lad. Ruary, meet your youngest mistress, Lady Tara Davidson.”
The boy was shy. He pulled his hat off his head. His mop of hair was the color of a crow’s wind. Keeping his attention on the ground, he gave a quick bow.
“Where do you plan on riding, my lady?” Old Dickie asked.
“Over by the river,” she answered.
“Aye, then Ruary, saddle that mare Folly in the first stall for my lady, then saddle Jester for yourself. You ride out with Lady Tara. Keep an eye on her and keep your distance.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy did his bidding, and soon Tara was in Folly’s saddle and riding out of the yard. The boy on Jester kept a respectful length away from her.
Tara usually had someone accompanying her when she rode. Often it had been Aileen, but now it would probably be this lad. She didn’t know what to make of him. He didn’t look at her. She kicked Folly into a trot heading down Annefield’s front drive. The lad followed.
Once they were out of sight of the house, Tara turned to him. “Do you want to race?”
Now she had his attention.
He looked up in surprise, and she was taken aback by his features. He had strong brows over sharp blue eyes. He would be tall. His arms and legs were too long right now, but she understood someday, he would fill out—just as people promised her that she would take on curves and the attributes to be desired. But right now she was thin and happiest on a horse than any place else in the world.
“I don’t know that we should, my lady,” he said. “That might not be wise.”
“Oh, poo,” Tara retorted, and set her heels to horse.
Folly bounded forward. She must have been in the need of the exercise because she did not hold back.
Tara heard a sound beside her and looked over to see Jester racing beside her. Ruary was laughing. He enjoyed this as much as she did.
Together, they bounded over several stone dykes and galloped across fields until, tired, they slowed to a walk—and Tara realized she had forgotten her troubles.
Furthermore, Ruary was not like the other stable lads. He was intelligent and quick-witted. That afternoon, the first of many, Tara found a friend.
And as so often happens, friendship grows into love.
In spite of their class differences, Ruary became very important to her. He filled the void Aileen’s departure and subsequent marriage to some man in faraway London created. Tara could not imagine herself with any other man.
And then one day Tara’s father sent for her to be presented in London.
She made a choice that day. Like her sister before her, she chose to leave the Highlands of her home for the unknown, sophisticated world of London. It was curiosity that made the decision, that and the hunger of youth to see what lies beyond.
She never forgot Ruary. She couldn’t, but by the time she realized she should never have turned her back on love—it was too late.
And the cost was her very soul.
The Tay Valley
ove was a mystery that Lady Tara Davidson was certain she would never understand
. . .
Men wanted her. She’d been gifted by dint of her birth with looks that appealed to them. Indeed, gentlemen’s circles had christened her “the Helen of London” because of her beauty. Many had declared themselves to her. These men had claimed they loved her and yet, instinctively, she’d known what they had really meant is that they lusted for her.
There was a difference.
She knew because she had once experienced love from the
man who had ever truly cared for her—Ruary Jamerson, her father’s horse master.
And, in spite of his being beneath her station, she had loved him—
No, she corrected herself, I
Currently. In the present. In spite of all that had happened between them. He was the person with whom she had been completely herself, and she rued the day she’d walked away from him.
In her defense, back in those days, some three years ago, she’d been too young to realize how rare a love like Ruary’s was. He had begged her not to leave Annefield and this precious piece of Scotland that was her home, but even the dove must spread her wings.
Besides, Tara had been born to be presented to society. It was her destiny, and she’d excelled. She’d been introduced to the Court, feted, lauded, and even accepted a marriage offer from a very wealthy man who would have given her a life of untold luxury—until she realized in a moment of insight exactly what Ruary had meant to her.
Days before her marriage, Tara had done something no honorable young woman who wished society’s acceptance would have thought of doing—she’d bolted. Knowing that her father would never let her cry off, she’d disguised herself in boy’s clothing and run back to Annefield and Ruary as fast as she could travel. She had been willing to sacrifice everything for him.
But she’d returned too late. Ruary had chosen another. He’d fallen in love with someone else.
And the man she would have married?
Humiliation is a bitter medicine . . . but a broken heart is devastating, especially once Tara realized this meant she was entirely alone. Furthermore, her former betrothed’s father, the powerful duke of Penevey, was so angry at her for jilting his son, he was in the process of seeing that all doors in London were closed against her.
However, being ostracized by society was not Tara’s worry. No . . . her fear was that all the joy, all the anticipation in her life was over. She’d always had that fear. Once a debutante chose her husband and married, it seemed as if she dropped off the face of the earth.
It was important to Tara to be relevant. She needed to matter. She did not like being ignored.
During Tara’s second season, one in which she’d been busily toying with the affections of no fewer than six different men, a matron at a ball had warned Tara she was in danger of searching for the wrong thing in life.
“And what should I search for?” Tara had asked.
“A happy marriage,” the matron had confided. “Be careful. In this world, we have one life; one love. Don’t waste yourself on the trivial.”
At the time, Tara had been insulted by the advice.
However, now those words rang prophetic.
One life; one love
And she had lost hers when Ruary chose to marry Jane Sawyer. She would never love another man the way she did Ruary. Never.
If nunneries had still existed, Tara would have gone off to join one.
Instead, she found herself sitting in her bedroom, as when she was twelve, with nothing to entertain her other than the contemplation of the sameness of her days. What few friends she had were in London. She would remain here, unloved, until she was placed in her grave.
Tara could picture herself becoming an aged crone, an oddity in the valley’s society. Children would wonder at her story, and their mothers would whisper her cautionary tale lest their own broods be as proud as Tara had once been. She was a female Icarus who had flown too close to the sun.
Yes, it was a very sad picture indeed—and not how she’d once imagined her life . . .
she’d stopped to think at all.
In fact, one of the challenges of the last few weeks was that she had been afforded too much time to consider all things. She now saw her defects of character and her shallowness, but how did one change? Especially if she was a woman with a bit too much spirit—?
A knock on the bedroom door interrupted her solitude.
Tara turned in her seat by the window. “Yes?”
“My lady,” Mrs. Watson, the housekeeper’s voice said from the other side, “your father wishes you to join him in the library.”
Tara frowned but was not alarmed. “I’ll be right down.” Tara was glad she hadn’t yet dressed for bed. Her father rarely spoke to her since the scandal, and perhaps this request was a sign his temper was cooling. She checked her reflection in the mirror, decided she appeared presentable enough and went downstairs. She rapped on the closed library door.
“Come in,” was the abrupt order.
Tara turned the handle and entered the room.
Her sire sat at his desk, mounds of ledgers spread out before him. She rarely saw him attending his business. Aileen had been the one to keep the books and accounts in order.
A lamp had been lit, and its yellow light highlighted the sheen of sweat on the earl’s pale complexion. He did not wear a jacket and had loosened his neckcloth.
The library’s ever-present whisky decanter was no longer on the liquor cabinet but was on his desk, close at hand.
“You sent for me, Father?”
“I did. Sit.”
She took one of the upholstered chairs around the small table in front of the hearth. A small coal fire burned in it. He came around from his desk, shut the door, and faced her, placing his hands behind his back.
He had once been an elegant man. He was tall, thin and had been known for his charm although his dissolute habits had caught up to him. He had a decided paunch, and his red hair had long ago turned to a mousy gray. Deep circles underlined his eyes.
For a long moment he stood, staring at her, his lips pressed together sternly.
Tara tried to sit still, to wait. At last, she could stand the silence no longer. “If you are going to berate me, start on it. I’m tired and ready for my bed—”
“We are done up,” he interrupted.
“Broke, gone, bankrupt.”
The air seemed to leave the room. Tara forced herself to be calm. “How can that be? Didn’t Mr. Stephens pay a marriage portion even though I was not the one he married?”
Her father’s scowl deepened. “I spent it.”
He snorted his amusement. “It was gone before we left London. I’m damned fortunate he married one of my daughters, or my reckoning would be much worse than it is.”
Tara grabbed the arms of the chair as if they were lifelines. “You spent
of it already?” she repeated in amazement. That had been a sizeable amount of money.
He nodded and sank into the chair opposite hers. “There were a couple of fights, and I wagered on the wrong men. Then there was that night I went out with Crewing. That night didn’t end for two days.” He gave an impatient wave of his hand as if he was done explaining and hopped up to cross to the desk and pour another whisky into a well-used glass. “I thought I could earn it all back. With luck, I would have.”
“Oh, Father,” Tara said, her stomach sinking.
“I have a bit of blunt. Stephens bought that mare from me. He overpaid, but the mare didn’t bring in much.” He drank deep, emptied the glass, and drew a breath before admitting, “And then it becomes worse.”
“Worse? I don’t think I can properly appreciate worse right now.”
“You have to know,” he said. His expression had softened into one of deep remorse, and she couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for him. Aileen had always been harder on him than she was. Aileen didn’t trust him.
But Tara felt she must depend upon him, even for all of his notable faults. After all, he was her father.
“What is it I must know?” she asked.
“Someone has purchased my paper. He owns it all.”
“Your paper?” Tara repeated.
“You can’t gamble without money,” he said as if stating the obvious. “I had to reclaim what I’d lost from bad wagers, so I borrowed from the money changers and a banker here and there. The man who now owns my debts came to me yesterday afternoon. He expects me to pay. He wants his money now.”
“Can you speak to Blake?” she suggested, referring to her new brother-in-marriage.
Her father’s laugh was angry. “No, there will be no money from that quarter. He told me he would not cover my debts. He said he’d see that food was on my table, but my losses were my concern.”
Tara could not blame Blake. She forced herself to take a breath. “What of Annefield?”
His manner lightened. “It’s entailed. There is no fear there. It will go to my heirs. I haven’t lost that yet.”
“But what have you lost?”
“It’s what I
lose that matters. What I will lose.”
“And what is that, Father?”
“My horses. I built my reputation on them. They are my pride,” he added. “It shames a man to know he could be so foolish.”
“Is there anything else?”
“Aye, the land around Annefield.”
” Tara came to her feet. “Did you not say it was entailed?”
“The house is entailed, the rest is gone unless I can meet my obligations.”
“Then we shall meet them.” Here was something she could sink her teeth into. The case of blue devils that had been following her gave way to generations of pride. “We shall not lose the land. It is ours. Tell me all, Father. Between the two of us, we can create a plan. Who is this man who has purchased your paper?”
It took a moment for Tara to overcome her shock. “The Black Campbell? The Beast of Aberfeldy? He has that much money?”
“He may be a giant oaf of a man, but he has a shrewd mind. He showed me the vouchers. They have my signature.”
Tara found her temper. “I have
liked that man. I saw him not too long ago, and I thought him a brute. He was so rude.”
“Aye, of the boldest nature. I tell you
this fight. So he thinks he can best us. Well, he is wrong.”
“You are right, daughter,” the earl said. “Although he did offer me a solution and one that I have accepted.”
“What solution is that, Father?”
The earl sank onto the chair beside hers. He set his glass on the table. “Perhaps you made a better impression on him than he did on you?” His tone had grown hopeful.
“I don’t care what he thinks of me. I don’t like him. In fact, I detest him. Yes, that is how I feel. I have no desire to set eyes on him ever again.” It felt good to be her old self.
The earl lifted his glass to his lips and started to drink before he realized it was empty. He lowered the glass, sighed heavily, and said, “That is unfortunate, my girl. Because the terms of receiving all my paper back is that you marry him.”
Me and the Beast of Aberfeldy
? Oh, no, that will not happen—”
“As a matter of fact it
happen, and it will be done in one hour’s time. I’ve sent for the Reverend Kinnion. Campbell has secured a special license. You’d best go don your prettiest dress, daughter, you are about to become a bride. The groom will be arriving at any moment.”
Tara sat dumbstruck. Pride now warred with hurt.
Did her father believe he could dismiss her so easily. That she would willingly allow him to
her to a Campbell, and the Black one no less?
That was not going to happen.
She would show him. She would show all of them, including the duke of Penevey. She would return to London and make her own way. There was more to her than just a pretty face. It had taken intelligence to rule London the way she had, and she could do it again.
But she kept her thoughts hidden. She smiled at her father, and said, “Then please, excuse me, I need to change.”
“That’s my girl,” her father said approvingly. “This will be a good marriage. You’ll see. Aye, yes, you will be a Campbell, and it won’t be bad. Well, maybe you won’t be marrying into the ‘respectable’ branch of the clan, but you are a survivor, Tara. You will make them dance to your tune.”
She smiled her answer, her thoughts filled with the image of picking up the whisky decanter and smashing it over his head.
Instead, she rushed up to her room. From the back of her wardrobe, she pulled out the boy’s clothing that had enabled her to run away from London.
Now it would be disguise to return.
She would not marry a Campbell. Not now, not ever.
“Let my father marry him,” she muttered to herself as she dressed. She wound her braid around her head and hid her vivid coloring under a wide-brimmed hat.
With more confidence and spirit than she’d shown for weeks, she opened her bedroom door and stole down the back stairs, heading for the stables and freedom.