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The Lady and the Laird

The Lady and the Laird by Nicola Cornick
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Forres Castle, Scotland, February 1812

"Lucy, I need you to do me a favor."

Lady Lucy MacMorlan's quill stuttered on the paper, leaving a large blob of ink. She had been in the middle of a particularly complex mathematical calculation when her brother Lachlan burst into the library. A gust of bitter winter air accompanied him, lifting the tapestries from the walls and sending the dust scurrying along the stone floor. The fire crackled and hissed as more sleet tumbled down the chimney. Lucy's precious calculations flew from the desk to skate along the floor.

"Please close the door, Lachlan," Lucy said politely.

Her brother did as he was bid, cutting off the vicious draught up the stone spiral stair. He threw himself down, long and lanky, in one of the ancient armchairs before the fire.

"I need your help," he said again.

Lucy smothered her instinctive irritation. It seemed unfair that Lachlan, two years older than she at six and twenty, always needed her to pull him out of trouble. Lachlan had a careless charm and a conviction that someone else would sort out the trouble he caused. That someone always seemed to be Lucy.

They all had their roles in the family. Angus, the son and heir, was stodgy and dull. Christina, Lucy's eldest sister, was an on-the-shelf spinster who had devoted her life to raising her siblings after their mother had died and now acted as hostess for their father. Mairi, Lucy's other sister, was a widow. Lachlan ran wild. Lucy had always been the good child, the perfect child in fact.

What a perfect baby, people had said, leaning over her crib to admire her. Later she had been called a perfect young lady, then a perfect debutante. She had even made the perfect betrothal, straight from the schoolroom, to an older gentleman who was a nobleman and a scholar. When he had died before they married, she had become perfectly unobtainable.

Once upon a time she had been a perfect sister and friend too. She had had a twin with whom she shared everything. She had thought her life was safe and secure, but she had been wrong. But here Lucy closed her mind, like the slamming shut of an oaken door. It did no good to think about the past.

"Lucy?" Lachlan was impatient for her attention. He looped one booted leg carelessly over the arm of the chair and sat smiling at her. Lucy looked at him suspiciously.

"What are you working on?" he asked, gesturing to the papers that were scattered across the desk.

"I was trying to prove Fermat's Last Theorem," Lucy said.

Lachlan looked baffled. "Why would you do that?"

"Because I enjoy the challenge," Lucy said.

Lachlan shook his head. "I wouldn't choose to do mathematics unless I absolutely had to," he said.

"You wouldn't choose to do anything unless you had to," Lucy pointed out.

Lachlan's smiled widened. He looked as though he thought she had paid him a compliment. "That's true," he said. He fixed her with his bright hazel eyes. "How is your writing progressing?"

"I am working on a lady's guide to finding the perfect gentleman," Lucy said. She spoke with dignity. She knew that Lachlan was laughing at her. He thought her writing was ridiculous, a mystifying hobby. All the Duke of Forres's daughters wrote; it was an interest they had inherited from their mother, who had been a notable bluestocking. The sons, in contrast, were not bookish. Lucy loved her brothers—well, she loved Lachlan even though he exasperated her, and she tried to love stuffy Angus—but intellectual they were not.

As if to prove it, Lachlan gave a hoot of laughter. "A guide to finding the perfect gentleman? What do you know of the subject?"

"I was betrothed to such a man," Lucy said sharply. "Of course I know."

The light died from Lachlan's eyes. "Duncan Mac-Gillivray was hardly the perfect gentleman," he said. "Nor was he the perfect match for you. He was too old."

Lucy experienced a tight, trapped feeling in her chest. "You are so rude," she said crossly.

"No," Lachlan said. "I tell the truth. You only agreed to marry him because Papa wanted you to wed and you were still grieving for Alice and you weren't thinking straight."

Alice…

Another cold draught slid under the door and tickled its way down Lucy's spine. She shivered and drew her shawl more closely about her shoulders. Alice had been dead for eight years, but not a day passed when Lucy did not think of her twin. There was a hollow, Alice-shaped space inside her. She wondered if she would always feel like this, so empty, as though a part of her had been cut out, leaving nothing but darkness in its place. Alice's absence was like a constant ache, a shadow on the heart, and a missed step in the dark. Even after all this time, it hurt so sharply it could sometimes make her catch her breath. Her childhood had ended the day Alice died.

She pushed the thought away, as she always did. She was not going to talk about Alice.

"The point," she said, "is that I know what constitutes gentlemanly behavior, and more importantly—" she looked down her nose at her brother "—what does not."

"You know what constitutes French and Italian pornography, as well," Lachlan said with a grin, "and your erotic writings have been far more successful and profitable than your other writing. I wonder why you do not write more of them."

Lucy frowned at him fiercely. "You know full well why I do not! We don't talk about that, Lachlan. Remember? It's all in the past and no one is to know. Do you want me to be ruined?"

Lachlan scowled back at her, the two of them reduced to their nursery squabbling for a brief moment. "Of course not. And I haven't told a soul."

Lucy sighed. She supposed it was unfair to pin all of the blame on her brother when she had been so recklessly stupid and naive, but there was no doubt that he was untrustworthy. A year ago Lachlan had come to her and begged a favor, much as he was doing now. He needed her help with writing a letter, he had said. It had to be extremely romantic, very sensual, and sufficient to seduce the lady of his dreams into his arms.

Lucy had desperately needed to earn some money, and since she was more articulate than her brother, she had agreed. She had culled some lines from Shakespeare for him and added some poetry of her own. Lachlan had laughed and had said he needed something rather more exciting.

It was then that Lucy had remembered the erotic writings in the castle library. The library had always been a treasure trove for her, and she had scoured its shelves from the time she could read, devouring the vast collection that her grandfather had brought back from the Grand Tour. Then one day, among the weighty tomes of political history and the works of the classical scholars, she had found something a great deal more inflammatory than dry politics: several folios of drawings and sketches of men and women in the most extraordinary erotic poses. Some of the sketches had seemed anatomically impossible to Lucy, but it had been both educational and interesting to see them and she had viewed the pictures with intense intellectual curiosity, even turning the books upside down and sideways at various points to check that she had understood the details correctly.

Alongside the drawing had also been writings, vivid and sensual, equally interesting to the curious academic mind. It was these that Lucy remembered when Lachlan asked for something rather more arousing than Shakespeare. She had used the writings as inspiration. Perhaps she had overdone it. She was not sure. But certainly her brother had had no complaints. He had even told his friends and several of them had come forward to ask for similar assistance in their wooing. Lucy had obliged.

Then it had all gone horribly wrong. The first Lucy had heard of the scandal was at a meeting of the Highland Ladies Bluestocking Society. Everyone was talking about a mysterious letter writer who helped the young bucks of Edinburgh seduce the women of their acquaintance. Lachlan was apparently locked in a torrid affair with an opera dancer while his friends were likewise setting the town alight with their licentious behavior. One had impregnated and abandoned an innkeeper's daughter and another had eloped with the wife of the governor of Edinburgh Castle. In all cases the ladies had been wooed into bed with false promises and erotic prose.

Lucy had felt horribly guilty and dreadfully naive that she had not questioned Lachlan's motives before she had written the letters, nor had she foreseen what the outcome of them might be. Her need for the money had blinded her and she had thought of nothing but that. She could only hope that no one discovered that she had been the letter writer, because if they did, she would be ruined. She had promised herself that there would be no more provocative poetry. It was not the sort of behavior that a well-bred heiress should indulge in, and in the future she would have to make her money from other sources.

Lachlan was watching her. There was a decidedly calculating expression in his hazel eyes. It made Lucy suspicious.

"Anyway," Lachlan said, smiling winningly, "let's forget all about that and talk about me." He ran a hand through his hair, ruffling it. It made him look charmingly rakish. Lucy thought it a pity that none of her friends were there to be impressed. They all thought Lachlan was delightful, despite the fact that the words selfish and lightweight could have been invented to describe him.

"I've fallen in love," Lachlan said, with the air of someone making a grand announcement.

"Again!" Lucy said. "Who is the fortunate lady this time?"

"It is Dulcibella Brodrie," Lachlan said. "I love her and she loves me and we want to marry."

Lucy paused. Miss Dulcibella Brodrie would not have been her first choice as a sister-in-law. Dulcibella was beautiful, but she was also utterly helpless in a completely irritating manner. No doubt that was what had attracted Lachlan to her, but since he was fairly helpless himself, the combination of the two of them would be a recipe for disaster.

"Dulcibella is…very sweet natured," Lucy said carefully. She prided herself on being polite and she was glad she could find something positive to say. Dulcibella might be a little spoiled and self-centered, and she was drawn to a mirror as a bee was drawn to clover, but she did have her good qualities if one looked hard enough.

Lachlan's open face suddenly looked as tragic as a rejected spaniel's. "She's not free, though," he said. "She is already contracted to marry Robert Methven. The settlements are all drawn up."

Robert Methven.

The papers slipped from Lucy's hand again. She made a grab for them, then straightened up slowly. "Are you sure?" she said. She could feel an unnerving flutter in the pit of her stomach. Her fingers trembled. Her cheeks felt hot. She smoothed the paper automatically.

Fortunately for her, Lachlan was the most unobservant of men and was far too concerned with his own feelings to notice hers. "Of course I'm sure," he said. "It's a disaster, Lucy. I love Dulcibella. I was going to make her an offer myself. I just hadn't got around to it, and now Methven has got in first."

"Lord Brodrie probably wants more for his only child than a younger son," Lucy said. She kept her gaze averted from Lachlan's while she steadied herself, while she drew breath.

"But I'm the younger son of a duke!" Lachlan protested.

"And Lord Methven is a marquis," Lucy said. "He is a better catch." Her voice was quite steady now even if her pulse still tripped and her body felt heated and disturbed.

Robert Methven was getting married.

She felt light-headed and shocked, and she had no notion why. It was not as though she knew Lord Meth-ven well. Shortly after the night eight years ago when they had met on the terrace at Forres, he had suffered a terrible rift with his family and had left Scotland. He had gone to Canada and was rumored to have made a fortune trading in timber. It had been shortly before Alice had died and Lucy had not paid much attention. She remembered very little from that time other than the smothering sense of grief and the empty ache of loss.

Then Robert Methven's grandfather had died and he had inherited the title and returned to Scotland. Lucy had seen him a few times recently at the winter assemblies in Edinburgh, but the easy companionship she had found with him that night at Forres had vanished. They had exchanged no more than a few words on the most trivial of topics.

Lucy found Robert Methven physically intimidating, as well. The men in her family were all tall and lean, but Lord Methven was powerfully built as well as tall. His body was hard-muscled, the line of his jaw was hard and the expression in his sapphire-blue eyes was hard. He was overwhelmingly male. That masculinity was so blatant that it was like a slap in the face. Lucy had known nothing like it.

He had changed in other ways too. He was somber and the light had gone from his eyes. All the power and authority Lucy had sensed in him that night was still there, but it felt stronger and darker. Tragedy had a way of draining the light from people. Lucy knew that. She wondered what had happened to Methven to change him.

They had nothing in common now. And yet… Lucy's fingers clenched. She felt the smooth paper crumple beneath her touch. There was something about Robert Methven. Her awareness of him was acute and uncomfortable. She did not want to think about it because doing so made her feel hot and breathless and prickly all over. It was odd, very odd.

She sat down at her desk, smoothing her papers with fingers that were shaking a little. She was aware of an unfamiliar emotion, a curious sensation in the pit of her stomach, a sensation that felt like jealousy.

I am not jealous, Lucy thought crossly. I cannot be jealous. I am never jealous of anything or anybody. Jealousy is neither appropriate nor ladylike.

But she was. She was jealous of Dulcibella.

Lucy pressed her fingers to her temples. It made no sense. She could not be jealous of Dulcibella. Dulcibella had nothing she wanted. Lucy did not want to marry, and even if she did, Lord Methven in no way constituted her idea of a perfect husband. He was too intimidating and far too much of a man. He was just too much of everything.

"What am I to do, Lucy?" Lachlan asked, reclaiming her attention, holding up both his hands in a gesture of appeal. "Dulcibella would not dare go against her father's wishes. She is far too delicate to oppose him."

Delicate was not the word that Lucy would have chosen. Dulcibella was feeble. She had no steel in her backbone. In fact, Lucy had sometimes wondered if Dulcibella had a backbone at all.

"There's nothing you can do," she said briskly. "I am sorry, Lachlan." But you will be in love with another lady in the blink of an eye.

"I need you to write one of your letters," Lachlan said, sitting forward, suddenly urgent. "I need you to help me persuade her. Please, Lucy."

"Oh no," Lucy said. "No and no and no again. Have you been listening to a word I said, Lachlan?"

"I'm sorry about last time." Lachlan did at least have the grace to look a little shamefaced.

"I don't expect you are," Lucy said.

Lachlan shrugged, admitting the lie. "All right. But my intentions are honorable this time, Lucy. I love Dulcibella and I know you would want us to be happy. I want to marry her, Lucy. Please…" He let his words trail away as though he were brokenhearted. Most artistic, Lucy thought.

Harlequin; August 2013
384 pages; ISBN 9781460316511
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Title: The Lady and the Laird
Author: Nicola Cornick
 
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ISBNs
9780373777419
9781460316511