Authors: Jaclyn Reding
This novel is dedicated to
of Scottish Highlanders
lost their homes, their heritage,
oftentimes their lives
the period of time known as
And for Diana,
Princess of Wales,
what might have been
Yet where so many suffered one more wail
Of anguish scarce was heeded! Rang the dale
With lamentation and low muttering wrath,
As homestead after homestead in the strath,
As hut on hut perched tip-toe on the hills,
Or crouched by burn-sides big with storm-bred rills,
Blazed up in unison, till all the glen
Stood in red flames with homes of ousted Highland
The Heather on Fire: a Tale of Highland
Mathilde Blind (1841-1896)
No bird soars too high,
he soars with his own wings.
— William Blake
is a truth universally acknowledged,
single man in possession of good fortune,
be in want of a wife.
— Jane Austen,
Pride and Prejudice
Lady Grace Ledys stood in the midst of her
uncle’s study, a room so scarcely used that the newspaper sitting on the desk
was dated six months earlier. The servants, underpaid as they were, rarely
bothered dusting the place and had even taken to using the room for storage,
knowing it would never be noticed. For this occasion, though, the draperies
that were usually closed had been drawn back and a fire burned happily in the
hearth that had previously been home to a family of house mice.
Appearances, after all, were everything to
the Marquess of Cholmeley.
He sat before her now, her uncle, looking
quite at ease in this place he never frequented. His hair had been styled a la
Brutus, brushed carelessly forward and curled over his forehead. His boots wore
a fresh polish and his waistcoat was one she’d never seen before. He’d summoned
her there a quarter hour before, but his attention wasn’t focused on her. Not
at all. Instead, his entire focus was wholly taken up with the man sitting
The renowned Duke of Westover was a man
who must surely have already known his sixtieth year. His
thinning hair, pulled
back in a waspish-looking queue, showed white against the darkness of his coat.
His fingers held loosely to the golden knob atop his polished Malacca cane and
the fourth finger of his other hand was adorned by a ruby the size of a small
walnut. Two gold fob watches hung over the top of his breeches and he was
grinning at her—more precisely he was grinning at her breasts, as if the dark
mourning silk that covered them had suddenly grown transparent.
“Tell me, girl, are your breasts
He was trying to unsettle her, she knew,
and if he had directed such a question at her just six months ago, he would
indeed have left Grace wide eyed and gasping with astonishment. Adverse
circumstances, however, often had a way of dulling one’s sensibilities.
Before coming to live at the London home
of her uncle and guardian, Grace had known a blissful, refined existence at
Ledysthorpe, her family’s ancestral estate in Durham. She had been raised there
since a babe under the gentle care of her grandmother, the Dowager Marchioness
of Cholmeley. Her life had been touched only by softness and light. She hadn’t
yet seen the smoke-clouded spires of London’s churches, had never known the
noise and stench and filth of living amongst the other million or so souls in
England’s capital city. The farthest she had ventured had been the short,
tree-shaded buggy ride to the village of Ledysthorpe where everyone knew her
and greeted her with waves and smiles and inquiries after her health.
On her first day in London, Grace had
nearly been run down by a passing carriage and just missed having the hem of
her skirts spat upon by a strange little man selling brick dust.
The duke’s voice came again then,
returning her from her thoughts to the unavoidable here and now.
“Did you not hear me, girl? I asked
if that is your true bosom.”
Grace stared at the duke, determined not
to allow him the satisfaction of her anger and said calmly, her voice as chill
as a winter wind, “Would you have me open my bodice to prove it, Your
The duke looked momentarily taken aback.
Her uncle’s voice, however, came sharp as a rap on the knuckles.
Grace turned to where the Marquess of
Cholmeley sat in his carved chair just the other side of the Axminster carpet.
The Irlandaise knot on his cravat looked to have slipped a degree off center
and his mouth was fixed most unpleasantly amidst his bushy side whiskers. But
instead of directing his hostility at the man who had just insulted her, his
only niece, he was staring with displeasure at
Surely even Uncle Tedric must recognize
the impropriety of this interview. But he wasn’t moving. He wasn’t even
speaking. In fact, he was smiling, damn him, smiling at her in the same way
that wily clerk at the glove-maker’s shop had when he’d tried to fool her into
buying that pair of gloves with the overlong pinky fingers.
the clerk had said—as if he had actually expected she’d believe
him. Grace frowned again, looking from her uncle back to the duke;
with age, indeed.
Suddenly the clerk’s words couldn’t have rung any truer.
“I assure you, Your Grace,” her
uncle said, giving Grace a smile that held so little warmth it made her shiver,
“there is no artifice. Everything you see of my niece is indeed what the
good Lord endowed her with.”
“Indeed,” the duke repeated as
he shifted from one buttock to the other in his seat, “although she
certainly wouldn’t be the first chit to have puffed out her bodice with a wad
of stuffing to wheedle a man into marrying her.”
With a sniff, he returned his attention to
her. “Walk here to me girl.”
Grace shot one last look at her uncle,
silently begging him to stop this unprincipled humiliation. But instead of
speaking out and protecting her as he should in his role as her guardian, he
simply nodded, his eyes telling her his thoughts more clearly than any words.
He was determined that the duke should
offer for Grace’s hand and bless them all with his guineas in the process.
How had she never before realized the truth
Grace could remember as a child how her grandmother had
her head over her youngest son.
she’d called him.
But to Grace, from the time she’d been old enough to walk, her
“Uncle Teddy” had been nothing short of the most handsome, most
distinguished man she’d ever known, the closest thing on earth to his elder
brother, her father.
In the time since she had come to live
under his guardianship, Grace had come to see Tedric Ledys, Marquess of
Cholmeley, undistorted by childhood adoration. In reality, her uncle was
everything anyone else had ever termed him. It was he and no other who had
brought her to standing as she was before the Duke of Westover, feeling like a
mare on the block at Tattersall’s.
“Take a turn now, my girl.”
Grace lifted her chin, fixing on the stare
she’d seen her grandmother employ so many times during her childhood, most
often whenever Grace had misbehaved. It seemed to succeed, too, this particular
look, for the duke actually knit his brow in a moment of confusion. Bolstered
by his reaction, Grace took a short turn, then stood stiff as a lamppost before
At this nearness, she could see that the
duke was even older than she’d first thought, perhaps nearing his seventieth
year. He stood nearly half a head shorter than she, cloaked in the heavy clove
scent of his cologne. Grace closed her eyes.
Good God, in the name of all
that is holy, please do not allow Uncle Tedric to marry me off to this man.
“You’ve spirit,” the duke said
on a half smile that revealed decaying teeth. “I like that.”
Grace swallowed, calling on every ounce of
fortitude she possessed to remain still and hide her revulsion at the mere
thought of sharing any form of marital intimacy with him. She schooled herself
to hold her tongue until after the duke had gone, when she would inform Uncle
Tedric as firm as she could that no amount of wealth was worth having to wed
the Duke of Westover.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” she
said, fighting to keep her voice cold and detached.
The duke took her chin between his
fingers, turning it to stare at her profile.
“What of them?”
“I should like to see them.”
Grace frowned, peering at him from the
corner of her eye. “And shall I whinny for you as well, Your Grace?”
Tedric cleared his throat behind her.
“You may take your seat, Grace.”
Her uncle was frowning with displeasure as
she headed for her seat. He would take her to task later, she thought—or
perhaps he’d just sign the marriage contracts now in front of her, consigning
the rest of her life to this horrible man.
Damn Uncle Tedric,
Grace thought as she sat stiffly on a bench between
the two men, to the right her past, to the left—God forbid—her future. Why, oh
why had her uncle handed her the sole responsibility of restoring the family
coffers? His part, of course, had been to empty them through whatever foolish
means he might find, be it gaming, drinking, or philandering—talents he had
come to perfect—leaving them to live under the very real threat of debtor’s
It had taken him six months to reach his
present crisis—the span of time since her grandmother had passed away leaving
the government of the Cholmeley finances to him. While Nonny had lived, Uncle
Tedric had been given an allowance which he’d always managed to spend long
before he should receive the next, necessitating a quarterly trip to Durham
seeking more. Grace could remember the visits throughout her childhood,
listening as he catalogued his expenses for her grandmother over their supper,
bemoaning the state of wretched thrift under which he was forced to live.
Occasionally Nonny would relent and release additional monies to him. But on
those occasions when she refused, Grace had recognized a dangerous light in
Tedric’s eyes and watched the muscle on the side of his jaw stiffen against the
words he so obviously would have liked to say. He was left to bide his time
until the dowager would no longer hold the authority over the family finances.
And it hadn’t taken long.
After Nonny’s death, while Grace had
dressed herself in mourning black and avoided any amusement save her books and
drawing, Tedric had gone like a fox henhouse, wild, squandering his way through
his substantial inheritance before running up debt on the Cholmeley estate. He
had no hope of ever repaying. He soon turned his. sights upon Grace—or more
accurately upon her inheritance, which was held in trust until she wed or
reached her twenty-fifth year, a portion of which was to become his as her
guardian. Standing before the duke as she was, it was clear to Grace that Uncle
Tedric had decided the eighteen months before she reached five-and-twenty was
too long to ask his creditors to wait. Surely, though, there must be some other
way for them to raise the funds he needed. Grace quickly decided she would do
everything to convince her uncle to it as soon as the duke was gone.
Tedric spoke up then. “There is no
history of illness, either physical or mental, in our family, Your Grace. My
niece’s parents, my brother and his wife, were tragically lost while at sea
when she was a child, leaving my mother responsible for her upbringing. The
marchioness saw to it that Grace received her education from the best ladies’
tutors. Grace hasn’t yet entered society. She was raised solely at our family’s
country estate in the North, thus her character is sterling. And as I think you
will agree, she is quite lovely to look at.”
“Her age,” said the duke,
studying her again. “Three-and-twenty, you say? A bit long in the tooth to
have not yet been introduced to society.”
“I shall turn four-and-twenty in the
fall,” Grace added quickly.
Tedric shot her a quelling stare before
saying to the duke, “My niece gave up a coming-out before now so that she
might pass the last years of my mother’s life at her side, seeing to her care.
You may have heard Lady Cholmeley left us this past winter, just after she
reached her seventieth year.”
The duke’s severe expression seemed oddly
to soften. “I had heard tell of Lady Cholmeley’s passing.” He paused
a moment, almost as if offering a prayer to her memory and then said, the
crustiness returning, “I would
suspect, however, the reason for your niece’s delay in
coming to society is due more to your habit of gaming beyond your means.”
He leveled her uncle a hard stare. “Yes, Cholmeley, I have done a bit of
digging into your affairs. It would appear you are nearly twenty thousand
pounds in arrears.”
Tedric’s face blanched. The duke watched
him, brow aloft as if he awaited a denial. There came none. Only a lengthy and
Grace could but stare. How? How had he
amassed such an enormous debt? She had thought perhaps a thousand pounds, even
two, but this? Her chances for convincing Tedric to abandon his ideas of her
marriage were futile in the face of such a figure. Still, the fact that the
duke knew their circumstances offered one consolation. Surely he would never
marry her now. In fact, Grace made to rise from the bench, thinking his
departure was surely imminent.
“Lady Cholmeley…,” the duke
murmured then to no one in particular. “…We were acquainted once. Many
years ago. She was a lady in every sense of the word.”
The fondness in his voice, the affection,
was unmistakable, and it brought Grace to dropping back onto her seat. It
seemed he wasn’t totally discounting her as a prospect. Tedric wasted no time
in using whatever affinity the duke held for her grandmother to his advantage.
“Grace was named for my mother, you know. I believe you can see that my
niece resembles her closely.” He motioned across the room to where the
famed Gainsborough portrait of her grandmother hung above the hearth. “Did
I mention they were quite close?”