Achnasheen Castle, Western Highlands of Scotland, December 1818
Elspeth Douglas loved many things. Her family; her horse Chester; her home in beautiful Glen Lyon; daffodils; shortbread; the novels of Walter Scott; days curled up on the sofa in front of the fire.
And Brody Girvan, Laird of Invermackie.
Nearly everything on that list loved her back—although perhaps not the luscious, buttery shortbread. She’d needed to let out her favorite frock an extra inch for this Christmas house party. But Brody Girvan, to her infinite regret, didn’t know she was alive.
Now she sat in front of her dressing table mirror in her pretty bedroom in Achnasheen Castle and recognized the bitter truth. When it came to love, she’d set her sights too high. The dashing Laird of Invermackie was never going to view her as anything but a distant acquaintance, one of a crowd, nobody special.
Accepting this unpalatable fact ripped her heart to shreds because, ever since her first encounter with charming, disreputable Brody Girvan five years ago, she’d been under his spell. She hadn’t been quite sixteen. That was an impressionable age for a girl, when she was prone to infatuations with unattainable objects of desire.
Elspeth, with her dreamy, romantic soul, was more prone than most to powerful adolescent passions. Brodie with his wild, dark eyes, and wild, dark curls, and penchant for riding the most unmanageable horse in the stables, was sure to set her innocent heart fluttering. Of course, back then, when she was a spotty, plump, bookish fifteen and her beloved was a worldly twenty, she’d barely entered his consciousness. He hadn’t noticed her mooning around Glen Lyon all summer, frantic for a mere glimpse of him.
Most girls left their youthful fancies behind as they matured. But while Elspeth had grown out of her spots, and during this last year, her figure had gained some shape—despite the shortbread’s machinations—her heart had never wavered. It was Brody’s from the moment she saw him take a reputedly unrideable stallion over a high fence, then race across the hills with a careless élan that stole her breath away.
To her regret, in the years since that momentous day, Brody’s heart hadn’t shifted either. He remained happy to flirt with any attractive woman in sight, and get up to unknown wickedness in Edinburgh, and ignore the quiet girl who worshiped him from afar.
Now Elspeth surveyed her unimpressive reflection and decided she really couldn’t blame her idol for failing to fall at her feet and declare his love. The Laird of Invermackie was everything exciting.
Elspeth was the cuckoo in a family of peacocks. Or rather the humble sparrow. Cuckoos made their presence felt more than she ever had.
Her mother was one of the two famous Macgrath sisters, notable beauties who had dazzled London society before making brilliant marriages to rich Scotsmen. Elspeth’s mother had since become a powerful political hostess, and her influence had helped her husband rise high in the War Office. On the way, she’d borne five children: Elspeth’s older sisters Grace, Charity and Prudence, then the longed-for heir, Hamish. Eight years later, her mother’s “afterthought” arrived.
Elspeth had been an afterthought in her family ever since.
Most of the time, she didn’t mind. Life as the sole quiet member of her noisy, brilliant, opinionated, physically splendid family had its compensations. It allowed her to sit back and observe. It let her do what she wished, because nobody paid her a scrap of attention.
But when she came to attracting the man she wanted, her self-effacement was a complete disaster.
Discontentedly she counted off her mediocre physical attributes. Brown eyes. Brown hair. Unremarkable features. She wasn’t hideous, her face was quite pleasant, but as memorable as a potato. She sighed and bit her lip, and told herself she’d cried enough over Brody Girvan. Tears had never done her an ounce of good.
She and her mother lived with Hamish in Glen Lyon near Oban. Her brother had scorned the idea of following his father into civil service and spent his time being frightfully Scottish on his rich estates. A couple of times a year, he and his cousin Diarmid got together with their great friend Fergus Mackinnon, Laird of Achnasheen. Various family members often turned up to share the fun.
Brody Girvan was Fergus’s cousin. While he didn’t always appear at social gatherings, he was present often enough to remind Elspeth that no other man would ever match him.
Much good that did her either.
This year, there were changes in the air. The Christmas party was more exclusive than usual, and for the first time, Fergus and his bride, the famous artist, hosted the seasonal festivities at Achnasheen. Brody had arrived with Diarmid this afternoon, and Elspeth had a sick feeling that when he greeted her in the crowded great hall, he’d struggled to remember her name.
Now she met pensive brown eyes in the mirror. She’d had enough of feeling rejected and disregarded and boring. Things were due to change for her, too. She wasn’t going to be in love anymore. She was twenty years old, and it was time to grow up and forget silly infatuations.
No more broken heart. She was a mature woman, and she’d act like one.
So, take that, Brody Girvan.
She would embrace the fact that she was dull and drab. No longer would she eat her heart out for what she could never have. A new, free life started today, and may she be hauled through thistles in her nightie before she devoted another moment to yearning after handsome young men who wasted their best years in idleness and dissipation.
To prove she’d claimed the higher ground, the mature woman made a face and poked her tongue out at her uninspiring image.
Brody Girvan, Laird of Invermackie, was altogether a dashing fellow. Or at least that was what people told him.
But as he sauntered down from his bedroom at Achnasheen, crossed the medieval great hall with its decorations of holly and pine, and approached the breakfast room, he harboured the unwelcome suspicion that he wasn’t quite as dashing as he wanted people to think.
On his first night back in his cousin’s home, he’d stayed up with Hamish and Diarmid, drinking far too much of Fergus’s excellent whisky. It was good seeing his friends, but he greeted the morning with a headache and the grim knowledge that he frittered away his life and youth on pleasures that began to pall.
For months, this feeling had been growing on him. At first, he’d given it the cut direct. After all, what else could any man want but plenty of reckless women to warm his bed and the freedom to pursue whatever vices beckoned?
But his lurking dissatisfaction hadn’t taken its dismissal in good spirit. It had pursued him, like bailiffs harrying a laddie who hadn’t paid his tailor’s bill. Over recent months, its clamor had risen to the point where ignoring it took more effort than anything else in his hedonistic, useless life.
Good God, was that really how he’d describe his gilded existence?
He refused to admit that it was. But last night and too many nights before that, he’d sat up late carousing with cronies, while wishing he’d gone to bed with a good book instead.
What a shameful admission for a rake to make.
There was no arguing that today he hadn’t slept until noon as was his habit, but instead was up at the unheard-of hour of eight. The devil knew why. Nobody else seemed eager to face the snowy morning. The castle was as quiet as the grave, and as was the norm in Scotland in December, outside it was howling a gale. In dreich weather like this, even a bloody parson could find an excuse to sleep late.
Grumpily Brody slouched into the breakfast room. He caught the smell of bacon and kippers and whatever the hell other instruments of torture his cousin Fergus had set out in the name of sustenance. His stomach rebelled. He swallowed sour bile and told himself that under no circumstances would he start his day by casting up his accounts.
Anyway, he placed the blame in the wrong quarter. He should credit the menu to that black-eyed, half-Italian witch Fergus had married a little over a year ago.
Except that wasn’t fair. Brody liked Marina, Fergus’s unconventional bride. Although he couldn’t help noting that his restlessness with a perfectly pleasant life dated from seeing his once self-sufficient cousin in thrall to a woman. And as happy as a Scotsman in a haggis factory.
Blast it, at this rate, Brody might start considering marriage, too.
At first, he thought the breakfast room was empty—which suited his curmudgeonly humor. Then he saw a girl watching him from the shadowy corner beside the buffet.
“This room is as dark as a deuced coalmine in Hades,” he growled, before he reminded himself that he was supposed to be a gentleman, with at least a distant acquaintance with manners.
“And good morning to you, too, Brody,” the girl said in a flat tone, carrying her plate across to the table. She chose a seat that offered her a view across the snowy lawns to the loch.
It was the Douglas chit, the youngest sister, the quiet one. The only brunette in a family of blazing, golden blonds.
“I’m sorry. I’ve got a devil of a head,” he said, before wondering if confiding the night’s excesses to a well-born virgin was quite the thing either.
“Then by all means, don’t feel you have to make conversation,” she said, with more of the faint sourness that had tinged her greeting.
Shocked, Brody paused on his way to the buffet, seeking not food but the coffee pot. The lassie spoke to him as if he didn’t deserve her attention. When he appeared, girls always brightened up and played with their hair and went all giggly and arch.
He frowned across at this wee brown wren. She looked anything but giggly or arch. In fact, she showed no pleasure in his company at all.
The lassie began to eat her porridge with dogged dedication, as if he wasn’t there. Surprise thundered through him, stole his breath. Good Lord, she was ignoring him. Girls never ignored him.
He shouldn’t be piqued. But he was.
Feeling grumpier than ever, Brody prowled across to the coffee pot and raised it in her direction, wondering if he’d catch her observing him under her lashes. She wasn’t. Instead, she was staring out the French doors at the unencouraging weather. With Christmas only four days away, today promised snow all through the festive season.
“Would ye like some coffee?” he asked, to interrupt whatever profound, non-Brody-related thoughts she enjoyed.
She turned her head and inspected him the way she’d look at a slug on her salad. “My name’s Elspeth.”
He became seriously annoyed now. Too much whisky must make a man short-tempered. Which was odd, because as a rule, he was the most easygoing of laddies, even after a night of kicking his heels up.
You’re easygoing only because you always get your own way, a nasty wee voice sniped in his mind. That nasty wee voice had moved in at the same time as his general dissatisfaction. He’d spent a year wishing it to Jericho, but so far it remained entrenched, and inclined to offer an opinion when least welcome.
“I know that,” Brody responded with a hint of impatience. “You’re Hamish’s wee sister.”
Elspeth’s lips tightened. Had he said something wrong?
“I wasn’t sure you remembered me.”
“Of course I remember you. Our families get together two or three times a year. I’d need my head fixed, if I didn’t remember you.” He waved the coffee pot at her, only just missing spilling it. “Now, Elspeth, Miss Douglas, Hamish’s wee sister, would ye like some coffee?”
“No, thank you,” she said, with a politeness that shouldn’t irk, even if it did.
Like the rest of her family, she spoke with an English accent that turned the insincere courtesy even frostier. The Douglases were as Scots as Brody was, but they’d grown up in London, where the late Laird of Glen Lyon had been someone important in the War Office during the conflict with France.
When Brody poured his coffee, he slopped it in the saucer. That annoyed him, too. He was generally brimming with savoir faire.
He swallowed the first cup so fast, he burned his mouth. Trust Fergus to make sure his guests had hot coffee. Still feeling disgruntled, he poured another cup and crossed to take the chair opposite Elspeth.
He drank this cup with more care, using the opportunity to take stock of his companion. Family gatherings tended to be chaotic, and crowded, and full of large personalities jostling for space. While he’d always known this girl was there, he’d never paid much attention to her.
She was surprisingly pleasant to look at, now he took the time to find out. A touch of the Madonna, with her oval face and deep brown hair drawn back in a simple knot. Creamy skin, and a nice, generous figure. A bonny bosom, too, although that mold-green dress with its collar fastened up to her chin did nothing to show it off.
Brody wasn’t in favour of overly skinny girls. He liked a soft armful of a lassie to keep him warm. If a laddie got young Miss Douglas into his bed, she’d offer him a good, comfortable landing.
Which was not a thought he should have about his friend’s sister.
When her mouth flattened under his inspection, he saw she was aware of his scrutiny and didn’t like it. Apart from that luscious bosom, her mouth was her best feature. Full and expressive, and offering an intriguing hint of unawakened passion.
With a glare, she set down her spoon. “It’s rude to stare.”
In his experience, girls liked him looking at them. Actively encouraged it, in fact. It seemed he needed to file Elspeth Douglas under a different category from the females he knew.
“I was just thinking that I’ve known ye for years, yet this must be the first time we’ve spoken alone.”
Large brown eyes turned larger with surprise and focused on him. A brown deep enough to drown in. Eyes brilliant with intelligence and surrounded with thick, dark lashes. He found himself wondering if her eyes might be her best feature after all.
“We’re…we’re not exactly speaking.” Her voice was unsteady.
“I apologize for my lack of address.” Two cups of coffee made him feel almost human. He managed to scrape up a smile. “I’m not used to being up at this ungodly hour.”
“No,” she said, without smiling back. “I’ve never seen you at breakfast before.”
“Perhaps I’ll get up early more often, now I ken what charming company awaits me.”
It was the kind of gallant remark he made without thinking and which always elicited a flurry of feminine fluttering from the recipient. Elspeth merely sent him an unimpressed glance and rose to serve herself some bacon and scrambled eggs.
He must be feeling better. The sight of the food on her plate made him hungry instead of ill.
“Do ye ride, Elspeth?” he asked, after he’d got himself some breakfast. “Fergus and Marina have suggested going out on the hills, if the weather doesn’t worsen.”
He didn’t know why he tried to make conversation. Every time he spoke, the girl stiffened up as if she feared he set out to lure her into some wickedness. Perhaps she’d heard about his reputation as a Lothario.
Perhaps? Of course she had. Brody was under no illusion about the way the members of his circle gossiped about each other.
Was she afraid that he meant to flirt with her? That wasn’t his impression. Instead he felt like she considered him a damned nuisance, and she’d rather he went away.
The surprise was that he was in no mood to cooperate. The world was full of pliable-minded lassies. Why on earth was he so curious about this wee tabby kitten all of a sudden?
She took her time examining his question for hidden meanings, then responded warily. “Yes, I ride.”
He smiled again. Again she didn’t smile back. “Perhaps we can ride together.”
And wondered why the image flooding his mind depicted riding of a very different sort. She wasn’t at all his style, if one disregarded that voluptuous, yet too modestly covered figure. He tended to chase much more obvious—and obviously available—quarry.
Which is why you’re bored stiff with your conquests, said the horrid, persistent voice.
Go away, he said back, without any hope that it would listen.
Another small delay, then the girl said, “Perhaps.”
He was gearing up to push for something more definite—and enthusiastic—when a maid came in with fresh coffee. He bent his head and began to eat, surprised at how famished he was.
By the time they were alone again, he had another cup of coffee on the table before him, while Elspeth sipped her tea. “How long are ye staying at Achnasheen?” he asked, not sure why he persevered, but persevering anyway.
“Until after New Year,” she said.
He’d intended to leave after Boxing Day, but now he changed his mind. “Me, too.”
“That’s longer than usual,” she said in a neutral voice.
This was the first indication that she’d paid him any attention over the years. Pleased, he said, “I’m looking forward to seeing more of Marina and Fergus, given this is the first Christmas they’re hosting here.”
“Yes, it’s meant a change, hasn’t it?” At last, she sounded almost friendly.
He was about to follow up on the thaw, when Diarmid, blast him, came bouncing in. His friend was awash in good spirits, which seemed dashed unfair, given the amount of bad spirits he’d imbibed in Brody’s company last night.
“Elspeth, I should have known you’d beat me to breakfast. How did ye sleep? I slept like a baby.” The tall, handsome, charming bastard came forward and kissed the girl’s cheek with a familiarity Brody couldn’t lay claim to. After all, the two were cousins, whereas he was a mere family friend. “Hope this snow stops before too long. The plan is to go riding later.”
For the first time that morning, she smiled. “Good morning, Diarmid.”
Her face expressed fondness, with a touch of the humor she’d signally failed to share with Brody. Diarmid beamed back, then turned to Brody. “Good morning, my lad. Thought you’d be nursing a headache.”
“Not at all,” Brody said coldly, wishing his friend to Hades.
“I suppose that’s one benefit of all that licentious living,” Diarmid said, before he toddled off to pile a plate high with food.
Brody wanted to tell his friend to shut his blasted mouth. A man’s entertainments were his own business. More, he cursed Diarmid for interrupting an encounter that showed signs of heating up from near freezing.
The moment Elspeth had smiled—not at him, damn it—he recognized why he’d decided to put off his departure. The next few days offered intriguing possibilities, and he was just the man to take advantage of them.