The Carrick Estate, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
“Miss Niniver? Are you there?”
Niniver Carrick looked up from the silky head of the deerhound she was stroking. Recognizing the speaker’s voice, she inwardly sighed.
Crouched in a pen halfway down old Egan’s barn, she was hidden from Ferguson’s sight. For one fleeting instant, she was tempted to stay where she was, safe in her refuge surrounded by her hounds, but as ever, duty called. Called, hauled, and had her straightening, brushing pieces of hay from her riding habit’s skirts. The pens’ walls had been raised to keep the hounds contained; she lifted her head and peeked over toward the front of the barn. “I’m here. What’s the matter?”
Ferguson, the butler at Carrick Manor, saw her and strode deeper into the barn. A middle-aged man, upright and sober, he was one of the clan elders. “It’s Mister Nolan.”
Although Niniver’s older brother Nolan had succeeded to the title of Laird of Clan Carrick on the death of their father, Manachan Carrick, some ten months before, clan members had yet to change the way they referred to Nolan—a telling point, to Niniver’s mind.
Ferguson halted before the pen in which she stood and fixed his gaze on her face. “Sean sent word that Mister Nolan’s worse than ever. Ranting and raving like one possessed. Bradshaw, Forrester, Phelps, and Canning are there, too. They all think you need to come.”
Niniver stared at Ferguson while she absorbed his words and what they really meant. Shortly after their father’s death, Nolan had ridden up to a narrow ledge on the western side of the Coran of Portmark, one of the minor peaks in the range to the west of the Carrick lands. As that area was uninhabited, Sean, the head stableman, had followed at a distance; he’d reported that Nolan had sat on the ledge and stared out. As the ledge afforded a wide view over Loch Doon and the Rhinns of Kells, everyone had assumed Nolan had gone there to relax and think.
Initially, Nolan’s visits to the ledge had been infrequent, but when he’d started riding in that direction every week, and then twice a week, Sean had followed him again. The side of the ridge was ruffled with folds, making it easy to get close enough to watch Nolan without being seen—and to hear what he said when his visits became a daily occurrence and he’d started rambling aloud.
Then he’d started ranting.
Eventually, he’d taken to raging and raving.
The target of his fury was their eldest brother, Nigel—he who had been convicted in absentia of poisoning their father, and who was also suspected of killing two clan women. A hue and cry had been raised, but Nigel had slipped away without trace; it was believed he’d taken ship for the colonies and had escaped beyond reach.
“All right.” Niniver unlatched the pen’s gate. Carefully keeping the questing hounds back, she slipped out, then reset the latch.
She could guess why she’d been summoned. Like the others named, she’d been up to the ledge before and had heard the tone of Nolan’s ranting. He spoke to Nigel as if their brother was there, and he clearly blamed Nigel for all the difficulties the clan currently faced—the difficulties that, as laird, it was now Nolan’s responsibility to deal with. To improve and rectify.
Nolan had accepted the mantle of laird readily. If anything, Niniver would have said he’d been keen to show that he was up to the task. But as the weeks and months had passed… If she had to describe what she’d seen in Nolan, she would say he had crumbled under the weight.
She and Norris, the youngest of her three brothers, had never been that close to Nigel and Nolan, who were older by more than five years. Yet over the last eight or so months, Nolan had retreated even further from them, much like a crab backing deeper into its shell. The gulf between her and Norris, and Nolan, was now a gaping chasm, impossible to bridge. She’d given up trying.
Walking out of the barn, she glanced at Ferguson. The heads of four clan families—Bradshaw, Forrester, Phelps, and Canning—were already at the ledge. Ferguson was another clan elder. Five votes on the clan council constituted a majority. Niniver had a strong suspicion over why they wanted her there.
She pulled her riding gloves from her pocket. “Are you returning to the manor, or will you come, too?”
“The others asked me to come,” Ferguson said, “so I’ll ride along with you.”
And that, she thought, confirmed it. Unsurprisingly, the clan had grown skeptical of Nolan’s ability to manage and lead; they were preparing to confront him, possibly to take the lairdship from him, and they wanted her—his sister, but also the next oldest member of the main Carrick line—there as a witness.
Pausing to lift her face to the spring sun, she closed her eyes, breathed in, then out. All she felt was a sense of inevitability, of being on a road from which there was no turning aside. With an inward sigh, she opened her eyes. Setting her lips, she strode for her big bay gelding, Oswald, waiting placidly by the fence. “In that case, let’s go.”
* * *
After leaving Oswald tethered with the other horses a little way away, Niniver joined her clansmen in the fold to the south of the narrow ledge on which Nolan was pacing.
Bradshaw, Phelps, Canning, and Forrester greeted her politely. Phelps and Bradshaw had brought their sons. After exchanging quiet hellos and nodding to Sean and the young groom he’d brought with him, she joined the others in studying Nolan.
The rock ledge on which he paced was a little way down from the ridgeline, at an elevation slightly below their position. He strode agitatedly back and forth, half the time turned away from them. They only saw his face when he swung around, yet his attention remained elsewhere; he never looked their way. A stiff breeze was blowing from the northwest, making it unlikely he would hear them even if they called, but the breeze carried his words to them clearly.
She hadn’t set eyes on him for the last week; he’d taken to eating his meals in the library and avoiding all contact, not only with her and Norris but with the household in general. Now, as she looked across the shoulder of the ridge that lay between them, what she saw shocked her.
Over the last months, Nolan had been growing more furtive, his expression more hunted—more haunted. Now he looked like a caricature of a madman, his eyes wild and staring, his hair—once as fair as hers but now lank and dull—standing out from his skull at odd angles. His complexion, normally as pale as hers, was red and blotchy.
Previously, he’d always dressed well—not just neatly but expensively. Now his clothes looked as if he’d slept in them for days.
Even more disturbing was the way he walked—jerkily, abruptly, like a puppet whose strings were being manipulated by some amateur puppeteer, with Nolan himself no longer in control.
As for the words that spewed from his lips…
“You bloody bastard! How was I to know it would be like this? But you knew, didn’t you? You knew, and you never said anything! So now I’m here, trying to cope, and they’re all watching and expecting me to be like Papa and make it all work—and it’s hopeless! There’s nothing there!” Nolan clutched at his hair, gripping and tugging, his face contorting with effort and pain. “Aargh!” He released his grip; Niniver saw several pale strands drift from his fingers.
Nolan’s voice lowered, darker and grating. “I can’t do this. This wasn’t what I planned. I can’t go on pretending, and I’m trapped! Trapped, I tell you!” His jaw set. He ground out the words “This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.”
His tone was ghastly; none of those watching could have had any doubt they were witnessing a descent into madness.
Niniver swept up her skirts and swung toward the path to the ridgeline. The path to the ledge lay ten yards further on.
Ferguson looked at her. “Where are you going?”
She glanced at Nolan. “I’m going to talk to him.”
“You can’t do that.” Canning looked appalled. “He’s beyond reasoning with.”
“I know, but I have to try.” Niniver met Canning’s gaze. “We all know where this is leading, but he is my brother. If I can calm him down, we can all leave and ride back to the manor without a struggle.”
None of the men liked it, but none of them had the right to gainsay her.
She took another step.
Sean moved to follow her. “I’ll come with you.”
She glanced at him. “No. If he sees you, he’ll erupt—you know what his temper’s like. Bad enough he’s in this state—we don’t need that, as well.”
Sean stared at her stonily, every bit as stubborn as she. “We can’t let you face him alone. I’ll hang back if you promise to keep your distance from him.”
She grimaced, but then nodded. “All right. I’ll keep out of his reach.” She turned to the path. The others returned their attention to Nolan. Niniver, along with Sean, glanced at Nolan, too.
Abruptly, Nolan clutched his head with both hands. He pressed hard, the tendons in his hands and wrists sharply defined as he pressed in, his features contorting. Then he hunched, curling in on himself as if in unbearable pain—
He released his head and straightened. Throwing his arms wide, he screamed, “You bloody fool! You should have killed me, instead!”
He took one step forward and flung himself off the ledge.
Below the ledge ran a deep, narrow, granite-sided crevasse—one of the occasional fissures that, like rocky gashes, scored this landscape.
In the sudden silence, they instinctively froze, then the breeze wafted and they heard a muted thump.
It was the most chilling sound Niniver had ever heard.
Shock held them all speechless.
Until Sean murmured, “Bugger me. The bastard’s killed himself.”
* * *
Phelps was a sheep farmer; he and his son, Matt, always carried ropes on their saddles, as did Sean.
In a group, they walked to the ledge. They peered into the crevasse, but small bushes and grasses sprouting from the rock walls made it impossible to see what lay in the shadowed depths.
The opposite lip of the crevasse was lower than the ledge, but was flanked by scree; circling around to it wasn’t an option. But the crevasse was very narrow, a gaping wound ripped in the side of the hill and lined with rock as far down as they could see; there was no way to walk in and no path down.
Phelps, Matt, and Sean laid out the ropes. The other men organized themselves into teams to lower Sean and Matt into the crevasse. Her arms tightly folded, her mind blank, Niniver watched as the pair went over the edge, each on separate ropes, with a third rope dangling between them.
As they descended into the shadows, she walked to the edge; she looked down, watching, but the bushes soon obscured her view.
She turned her attention to the ropes. The men slowly let the ropes play out—and out; the crevasse was deeper than any of them had thought. At last, the tension on the ropes eased as first Sean, then Matt, reached a point where they could stand.
A moment later, a yelping exclamation—both Sean’s and Matt’s voices raised in surprise—erupted from the depths. Peering down, Niniver frowned. Sean and Matt had known what to expect, so why had they sounded shocked?
“What did they say?” Ferguson called from where he waited with the other men to haul the pair up again.
Still frowning, she shook her head. “I don’t know. The rock distorts their voices too much. They’re talking now, but I can’t make out what they’re saying.”
The third rope—the one Sean and Matt had planned to tie around Nolan’s body—shifted. Phelps came to stand beside Niniver, but he, too, could make nothing of the mutterings rising from below.
Then Sean tugged on his rope, and Matt tugged his. Phelps rejoined the other men, and they hauled the pair up.
Sean reached the ledge first. His weathered, normally ruddy countenance was chalk-white.
“What is it?” Niniver demanded as he scrambled onto the ledge.
Sean pushed to his feet. “We found Nolan’s body. He’s dead—neck broken, among other things—just as we expected.” He glanced at Matt as the younger man scrambled up to stand beside him.
Matt, too, looked badly shaken.
Sean turned to Niniver. He hesitated for a second, then blurted, “Nolan’s body was lying on top of another body. Nigel’s body was already there—Nolan flung himself down in the same place.”
Niniver blinked. Her mind whirled. “Nigel flung himself off this ledge, too?” She couldn’t imagine that, not of Nigel, but she hadn’t expected Nolan to kill himself, either.
Looking grimmer by the second, Sean shook his head. “Nigel landed on his back, and Nolan’s hunting knife, the one he said he lost last year, was buried between Nigel’s ribs.”
She felt her mouth fall open, then her mind whirled one last time, and like a kaleidoscope, all the pieces fell into place. “Ah.”
The quiet sound—of recognition, of realization—was drowned beneath the men’s shocked exclamations.
She looked around the group. Unlike the others, she wasn’t surprised.
Indeed, just the opposite. Finally, everything was starting to make sense.
* * *
It took several hours to bring both bodies up from the depths of the crevasse and transport the remains to Carrick Manor. Despite the depredations of small animals and the passage of time, Nigel’s body was easily identified. His remains were garbed in the clothes he’d worn to the wedding of their cousin, Thomas Carrick, and Lucilla Cynster—the last time anyone other than Nolan had set eyes on him.
Niniver spent the rest of that day closeted in the library with the clan council. Norris was present, too. Although he was several years younger than she and therefore had fewer memories of Nigel and Nolan as children, his assessments of their older brothers matched and supported her own.
Fact by fact, she and the council assembled the true sequence of events. Recalling a statement Nolan had made at the inquest into the Burns sisters’ deaths—an inquest that had reached no final conclusion but had left the suspicion of murder hanging over Nigel’s head—Niniver sent Sean to Ayr to pose what were now clearly pertinent questions to certain people there.
It was the following morning before Sean returned. The clan council reconvened to hear his report. Once they’d digested the no-longer-unexpected news, Ferguson turned to Niniver. “What now? Do we summon the authorities, or what?”
Seated behind the desk her father had used throughout his long reign as laird, Niniver met Ferguson’s gaze, then looked at Mrs. Kennedy, the housekeeper, seated alongside him, then at Canning, Phelps, Bradshaw, Sean, and the others on the council. All regarded her levelly, expectation in their eyes.
The vow she’d uttered over her father’s grave resonated in her mind. I will do whatever’s necessary to ensure that all mistakes made by your children are put right and that the clan is made whole, strong, and prosperous again. I will do all I can, and whatever I must, to preserve your legacy and to steer the clan as you would have wished.
It had been all she’d had to offer in reparation for her father losing his life; she hadn’t known enough to save him from being poisoned by one of his sons.
The least she could do now was to ensure the blame fell on the son who deserved it, thus clearing the name of the son who had been another victim. That way, Nigel—Manachan’s firstborn and best-loved child, the one who, despite his weaknesses, had been groomed to take the lairdship—could be buried next to Manachan in the family plot.
Yet her vow demanded she put the clan first. “We need to inform the authorities of Nolan’s death, and of all we’ve now realized. But if at all possible, I think we should endeavor to keep the matter quiet. I see no reason for the news sheets in Ayr and Dumfries, much less Glasgow and Edinburgh, to be encouraged to revisit the clan’s difficulties.”
Everyone was nodding. Phelps glanced around. “Clearly, you’ll get no argument from us on that score. The clan have suffered enough—we don’t need our dirty linen hanging out for the rest of the county to gossip about.”
Seeing agreement writ large in every face, Niniver nodded. “We’ll summon the doctor to examine the bodies—he’ll confirm what we already know. Meanwhile, I’ll send notes conveying the bare facts to…” She paused, considering, then went on, “Sir Godfrey Riddle, Lord Richard, and Thomas, and ask them to meet here this afternoon. Let’s see if we can manage things with just those three—they know the clan’s situation and will most likely be willing to help us arrange matters with the minimum of fuss.”
No one argued. Half an hour later, Sean took the notes Niniver had written and rode out to deliver them.
* * *
The doctor came, viewed the bodies, and promised to send his report to Sir Godfrey Riddle, the local magistrate.
Sir Godfrey arrived promptly at two o’clock. He came up the front steps, his expression grave and concerned. “Niniver, my dear.” After taking her hands in an avuncular clasp, he squeezed gently. “This must be so very distressing for you.”
She’d written only that Nolan had killed himself, and that subsequently they’d found Nigel’s body. Her expression uninformative, she inclined her head. How to explain that, while her father’s death and Nigel’s disappearance had rocked and shaken her, Nolan’s death and their subsequent understanding had restabilized her—had restored her confidence in her ability to read people, in her ability to navigate her world? The earlier situation, she simply hadn’t understood. Now, she understood all too well.
As for grief—those who had deserved her tears had been dead for nearly a year. She had too much to do to preserve their memories to feel much over Nolan’s passing.
Sir Godfrey released her as Lord Richard Cynster and Niniver’s cousin, Thomas Carrick, rode into the forecourt—followed by a carriage that swung wide to draw up before the steps. Thomas dismounted, tossed his reins to Sean, and went to open the carriage door. He handed down his mother-in-law, Richard’s wife, Catriona, and then, as if she were made of porcelain, Thomas assisted his wife—Catriona and Richard’s daughter Lucilla—to the ground.
Lucilla was pregnant, the whisper was with twins. Only slightly taller than Niniver, even though she was still many months from confinement, Lucilla certainly looked large enough for the rumor to be true. Yet from the reassuring smile she sent Thomas and the ease with which, supported by his arm, she climbed the steep front steps, she wasn’t seriously bothered by the extra weight she was carrying.
Although she hadn’t requested their presence, Niniver had hoped both ladies would come; she was relieved they had. After touching cheeks, squeezing fingers, and exchanging grave and muted greetings, she steered her collection of “authorities” into the drawing room, where Norris stood waiting.
Niniver had had the footmen rearrange the furniture. After greeting Norris, Lucilla let herself down on one sofa, and Catriona sank onto the matching sofa facing her. Richard sat beside his wife, and Thomas sat alongside Lucilla. Sir Godfrey took one of the armchairs set to one side of the fireplace and angled to face the room, leaving Niniver to sink into its mate.
Norris had placed a straight-backed chair on Niniver’s left. As Norris sat, she turned to Sir Godfrey. “If you don’t mind, I would like several clansmen to attend this meeting, as any decisions made will affect the whole clan.”
Sir Godfrey nodded somberly. “Indeed. This is a dire business for you all.”
Ferguson had hovered by the door; at Niniver’s nod, he ushered in Mrs. Kennedy, Bradshaw, Forrester, Canning, Phelps, and Matt. Ferguson followed, and Sean brought up the rear, closing the door behind him.
Ferguson and Sean placed the straight-backed chairs they’d earlier carried in from the dining room in a semi-circle between the ends of the sofas and the door, then with nods to the assembled gentry that were gravely returned, the clan members sat.
Niniver held Thomas’s gaze for a moment, then she looked at Sir Godfrey. “It might be best if I relate recent events as they occurred, and then we can move on to what we, the clan, subsequently deduced and confirmed, and ultimately to what we now believe occurred in the deaths of not just Papa, but also of Faith and Joy Burns.”
Sir Godfrey’s gaze sharpened. “I see.” He nodded. “Pray proceed.”
Niniver drew in a breath and succinctly described the events of the previous day. Sir Godfrey questioned Sean and Matt as to what they had seen when they’d first reached the bodies; their answers were brief, but complete.
“So.” Thomas met Niniver’s gaze, then looked at Sir Godfrey. “It appears that Nolan was in fact the murderer, and Nigel another of his victims.”
Thomas, too, was no doubt finding the new truth easier to comprehend than the previous judgment that had cast Nigel as the murderer.
“Hmph!” From under beetling brows, Sir Godfrey regarded Niniver. “You mentioned deducing and confirming more. What, exactly?”
“At the inquest into the Burns sisters’ deaths, Nolan said that he and Nigel had spent the night on which Faith and Joy died in Ayr, in a house of ill repute.” Niniver hoped her blush wasn’t too noticeable. “In light of our conclusion that Nolan killed Nigel, I sent Sean to ask the…er, ladies what they knew of that night. We thought…” She looked at Sean.
He came to her aid. “We thought as how if either of those two had left the ladies that night, the ladies would be likely to remember, even if it was nearly a year ago.”
“And did they remember?” Richard asked.
“Yes.” Sean looked at Sir Godfrey. “They remembered that the fair-haired one—Nolan—had ridden home that night. A pair of them heard Nolan tell Nigel he’d forgotten to put away some books they didn’t want anyone reading, so he was riding home to put the books away but expected to be back come morning.”
“And,” Thomas said, his gaze on Bradshaw, “when the Bradshaws fell ill because someone put salts into their well, that salting occurred the night before, when both Nigel and Nolan spent the night here. They headed to Ayr the following morning.”
Norris nodded. “So it was Nolan who put the salts in the well. Nigel would never have done that. He might have joked about doing it, but he would never actually have done it.”
Niniver looked at Sir Godfrey. “No one asked us—Norris and me—what we thought of Nigel poisoning Papa. Norris doesn’t remember Nolan and Nigel as well as I do.” She glanced at Thomas. “And I saw them more consistently than Thomas—when he was around, Nolan always played a very careful hand.”
Returning her gaze to Sir Godfrey, she continued, “Nolan resented—deeply resented—that Papa cared only for Nigel. That was Papa’s one real weakness—he never truly saw any of us but Nigel. However, Nolan didn’t hate Nigel. In his own way, Nolan loved Nigel, as much as he was able to feel that emotion. But Nolan was the clever one, while Nigel was…well, he was always easily led, and he trusted Nolan implicitly. From an early age, Nolan cast himself as Nigel’s closest friend and confidant, and his most loyal and effective supporter. I remember seeing it happen, even though I didn’t understand what I was seeing at the time—because, of course, Nolan never cared what I saw. I was just their baby sister, and no one would ever listen to me about them. To Nolan, what I—and later Norris—saw or didn’t see was never anything to be concerned about.”
She paused, then went on, “Over the last ten or so years, neither Norris nor I saw much of Nigel and Nolan. We stayed here, while they were out and about, often going to Ayr, Dumfries, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. However, I can’t imagine that the relationship between them changed, nor that they, as individuals, changed. So when it seemed it was Nigel who had poisoned Papa and killed Joy and Faith Burns, with Nolan innocent of any wrongdoing, I…didn’t know what to think.” She spread her hands. “It seemed backward, mixed up and confused, but with Nigel having supposedly fled, and Nolan… Once Nigel was gone, Nolan buckled down and did the best he could, and I thought perhaps I had interpreted things wrongly and it had been Nigel’s influence that had made the pair of them so wild before.” She drew in a breath and added, “And I never for a moment dreamed that Nolan might have killed Nigel because, as I said, if Nolan loved anyone, he loved Nigel.”
Catriona broke it. “That last fact—that Nolan loved Nigel—and yet, when it was clear there was a real risk of Lucilla seeing Manachan, realizing he was being poisoned, and raising the alarm, Nolan had to sacrifice Nigel to give the authorities and society a villain they would be content with… Having killed the one person he actually loved would account for Nolan’s descent into madness.”
Lucilla shivered. “Indeed.”
“If I may make so bold,” Phelps said, “if Nolan had intended to keep Nigel alive—to let Nigel be the laird, but for him, Nolan, to be the clever one managing the estate, and all else, from Nigel’s shadow—if that’s what Nolan had wanted, but then he was forced to kill Nigel to protect himself, that would also make sense of the blatherings Sean’s been hearing for months. Aye, and what all of us heard today up on that ledge.”
“It also explains,” Ferguson said, “why, having Nigel’s body close by, Nolan went to the ledge to talk to him—to still be close to him.”
Thomas stirred. His expression stony, he said, “I agree. If we accept that Nolan wanted revenge on Manachan, and that Nolan effectively controlled Nigel, then killing Manachan and having Nigel become laird… That might well have been the sum of Nolan’s intentions. He wouldn’t have had to shoulder any responsibility—no matter what happened, all blame would fall on Nigel’s shoulders. I can see that as being a nice revenge for Nolan. He would get to pull the strings Manachan had intended to be in Nigel’s hands, and any failures would be sheeted home to Nigel.”
They revisited various matters, recasting conclusions in the light of what they now understood, but it was clear that no doubt lingered in anyone’s mind as to the truth of what had occurred in the months leading to Manachan’s death.
Finally, Sir Godfrey called them to order. “I believe we’re all agreed that Nolan was the villain, first to last, in the matter of the old laird’s death, and also the deaths of the Burns sisters.” Sir Godfrey fixed his gaze on Niniver. “My earlier judgment will need to be rescinded, but I imagine you and the clan”—with a glance he included the other clan members—“would rather we accomplished what we need to do with a minimum of fuss, heh?”
Relief swept through Niniver. “Exactly.” She glanced at Thomas, then at the others. “The clan has suffered through the scandal of Papa’s murder, supposedly by Nigel. We would prefer not to have to go through that ordeal again.” She looked at Sir Godfrey, then at Lord Richard. “Yet we need to have Nigel exonerated so he can be buried next to Papa. Is it possible to do that while avoiding more public scandal?”
Sir Godfrey arched his brows. After a moment, he looked at Richard.
Richard returned his regard. “What if we took Nolan’s suicide as a confession? Which, in effect, it was.”
“And,” Thomas said, “there’s no need for a trial, given the murderer has taken his own life. He’s no longer here to be punished.”
“Ah.” Sir Godfrey looked more hopeful. After a moment’s cogitation, he nodded decisively. “Yes, indeed. That will work.”
In the end, it was agreed that, without any fanfare, Sir Godfrey would reopen the cases of her father’s and the Burns sisters’ deaths, and exonerate Nigel of the crimes by virtue of Nolan’s confession and the subsequent confirmation that it was, indeed, he who had been the villain in all three cases. Catriona, who, through her position as Lady of the Vale, maintained a close connection with the local minister, volunteered to explain matters to Reverend Foyle, thus easing the way for the clan to arrange the appropriate funeral and burials.
By the time all was settled and Niniver had waved everyone off, exhaustion dragged at her, but she had one more meeting yet to face.
Thomas had been the last to take his leave of her. He was seven years older than she; they had never been close, yet she had always seen him as a true Carrick, a man in the mold of her father. After helping Lucilla into the carriage and shutting the door, Thomas had turned to her, met her eyes, then taken her hands in his. He’d held her gaze levelly. “This is the end of a dark time for the clan, and for the family.”
She’d seen understanding in his amber eyes; he’d foreseen the inevitable consequence of the day, just as she had. All that was left was for her to deal with it, to chart her way forward through whatever eventuated.
Regardless of whatever happened, she would, forever and always, be clan.
She found Norris in the library. He was standing at the long windows looking out over the darkening landscape. She suspected that he, too, knew what was coming, and had been waiting to speak with her.
Stifling a sigh, she sank onto the arm of one of the armchairs.
Norris turned. Through the deepening shadows, he met her gaze. After a moment, he asked, “What now?”
She straightened her spine and raised her head. “Now we call a meeting of the clan to elect a new laird.” She held his gaze. “Will you stand?”
He laughed, a hollow, faintly derisive sound. “No. I have no wish whatsoever to lead the clan.”
She’d expected nothing else, yet she’d had to ask and hear him state it. From the moment of his birth, he’d been ignored, not just by their father but by the clan, too. She was the only person he had ever been close to; she was the only person he didn’t ignore back. He had no friends locally, no interests locally; his interests and ambitions were entirely academic, and thus had always lain far beyond clan lands.
“So what will you do?” She was still his sister; she still cared about him, and she knew that, inside his hardened shell, he cared for her.
“I didn’t expect to be free to choose so soon, but there’s nothing for me here. There never was.” Sinking his hands into his breeches pockets, he shrugged. “Truth be told, I’ve always felt there was never meant to be. I don’t belong here.”
She said nothing, simply waited.
Half turning, he glanced out of the window, looking to the east. “I need to carve out a life for myself. I’m going to go—I need to leave, once and for all. Forever. I won’t be coming back. And other than what I inherited from Papa, I won’t expect to draw on clan funds—do tell them that.”
She’d been expecting something of the sort, yet still… “Where will you go?”
His shoulders lifted again. “St. Andrews, perhaps. I can look for work there—as a tutor, perhaps as a researcher. Who knows? I’ll leave tomorrow morning.”
So soon? She drew a tight breath and rose. “So you’ll just ride away?”
Norris brought his gaze back to her face. “Without a single backward glance.”
She almost opened her lips to point out that meant he’d be leaving her behind, too, leaving her to cope with the disintegration of life as they’d known it, but…no. It was pointless to try to hold him. And, indeed, his leaving tomorrow would be an unequivocal statement of his relinquishing all claim to the lairdship. She forced herself to nod, then walked toward the desk. “Don’t go without saying goodbye.”
She felt his gaze on her but didn’t meet it. He hesitated, then said, “I’ll see you at breakfast.”
With that, he walked to the door, opened it, and left.
She sank into the chair behind the huge desk. Once Norris left, she would be alone. The clan would meet and elect a new laird from another clan family. To her would fall the duty of overseeing the transfer of all the clan holdings—the estate, the manor, all except the Carrick family’s personal wealth, a relatively meager amount that would be divided between herself and Norris. Everything else belonged to the clan—the furniture, the books surrounding her, even her deerhounds. Everything that made this place her home.
So what would she do once the transfer was complete?
She sat and stared at nothing as night closed in outside the windows and the shadows inside deepened.
Norris might be leaving, but in doing so, he was accepting the challenge of making a life for himself. She needed to do the same, but she was the opposite of him—she didn’t want to leave clan lands. Her roots were here, sunk into the soil in a way she couldn’t explain. She’d always felt connected, both with the gently rolling fields and even more with the people. She’d grown up immersed in clan, and she simply couldn’t imagine ripping herself free—couldn’t imagine any reason why she might wish to.
“So I’ll remain,” she murmured to the darkened room. “Whatever happens, I’ll work out some way to stay—perhaps whoever moves in will let me reopen the disused wing and stay there?”
She tipped her head, considering it, then lightly shrugged.
Aside from not having any inclination to leave clan lands, there was the overriding matter of her vow to her father—a vow she had yet to fulfill.
Unlike her brothers, she believed in clan, in right and wrong, in fulfilling obligations, and in keeping solemn vows. In giving back to those who gave to her.
Placing her palms on the desk, she pushed to her feet. “One way or another, I will find a way.”
Throughout her twenty-four years, whenever disruption had threatened, she’d fallen back on that tenet as her guide. It would steer her this time, too.
* * *
They buried Nigel and Nolan three days later. The atmosphere was more that of a witnessing than an honoring. The ambiance was strikingly different from that which had prevailed at their father’s funeral—but then Manachan had been revered by the clan and respected throughout the community, while Nigel and Nolan had been tolerated purely on the basis of being Manachan’s sons. As for acquaintances within the wider community, theirs proved to be limited to young hellions of similar ilk to themselves—irresponsible males intent on enjoying a hedonistic life with nary a thought for anyone or anything else.
Several of the latter unexpectedly turned up, driving curricles and phaetons, and greeting each other raucously.
The clan ignored them.
Initially, Niniver had been surprised by how many of the clan had chosen to attend. Then she’d realized that, for them as for her, the somber service marked the end of two years of uncertainty and unrest—two years of confusion, of not knowing what was going on, and of lost faith in the clan’s leadership.
Nigel was buried next to their father and mother in the Carrick family plot.
Nolan was buried in a far corner of the graveyard—rejected and disowned by all.
It was she who cast the first sod on Nolan’s coffin. Stony-faced, the clan elders followed her lead.
And then it was done.
No one felt any need to linger; everyone was glad to turn their backs and walk away.
As the gathering dispersed and the clan returned to the carts and drays that had brought them there, several of Nigel and Nolan’s friends surrounded her and attempted to press their patently insincere condolences on her.
She avoided society—in part because of just such men—but she’d long ago perfected one social art, that of keeping her feelings concealed and maintaining a mask of unruffled calm. Yet to be invited to join several would-be dandies on a picnic and, when she politely declined, to have her words ignored…
Luckily, Thomas intervened, and with several cutting words and a black scowl, he sent the horde packing. Together with Ferguson, Thomas escorted her away; she allowed them to lead her to her carriage, help her in, and shut the door.
Sean set the horses trotting, and the carriage pulled into the road, and finally, it was over.
She rested her head against the squabs and closed her eyes, holding in the tears that, suddenly, threatened to overflow.
Her family was gone—all of them. Thomas was her nearest blood relative, and he had his own place, his own role as consort to the future Lady of the Vale.
She…was alone. Completely alone. She had no place, no role—no life.
She was the one left behind.
But she knew the clan wouldn’t throw her out; she would have a place, a role, within it, even if she didn’t yet know what that would be.
She told herself to remain positive, or at least to keep her thoughts focused on what she yet had to do that day, on what lay immediately ahead.
The clan meeting to elect a new laird.
She sighed, opened her eyes, and glanced out of the window. “One way or another, I will find a way.”
* * *
She had accepted that, at the end of the clan meeting, she would need to witness the transfer of all clan property from the Carrick family’s control to that of the clan family to which the newly elected laird belonged. To that end, she’d summoned the clan solicitor from Glasgow.
When she reentered the house, a footman told her that Mr. Purdy was waiting in the drawing room. Her mask firmly in place, she went to greet him.
Mr. Purdy was a dapper older gentleman with shrewd hazel eyes. After shaking her hand and accepting her invitation to reclaim his seat on the sofa, he asked, “Do you know to whom the clan will turn?”
Settling on the sofa opposite, she shook her head. “There are several clan elders who might take the role. I felt I should remain aloof from whatever discussions have been taking place. In the circumstances, I don’t feel the decision of the new laird is one I should in any way influence.”
Her family had let the clan down, and the loss of the lairdship was an appropriate justice.
Mr. Purdy frowned. “You have another brother, if I recall correctly. He must be…twenty-two years old?”
“Norris. He declined to stand for the lairdship and has already left to forge a new life elsewhere.”
Purdy pursed his lips, then nodded. “As he didn’t desire the position, him leaving might be for the best.”
She’d come to the same conclusion. Whether he’d intended it or not, Norris’s departure had eased the clan’s way; that much she’d heard.
The door opened, and Ferguson looked in. He saw her, and relief softened his features. “There you are, miss.” Ferguson recognized Purdy; a frown passed fleetingly over his face. He inclined his head to the solicitor. “Mr. Purdy.” Then Ferguson returned his gaze to her. “If you would, miss, the clan’s all gathered and waiting in the library.”
She’d assumed there would be no need for her to attend the clan election, that it would be better for the clan if she wasn’t present, but apparently, they wanted her there. Perhaps as the sole remaining Carrick to represent the family whose name the clan carried. She rose. “Yes, of course. I hadn’t thought…” Turning to Purdy, she managed a smile. “If you’ll excuse me, sir?”
Purdy had risen as she had; curiosity in his eyes, he inclined his head. “Of course, Miss Carrick. I’ll wait here.”
Wondering what had pricked Purdy’s interest, she allowed Ferguson to usher her from the room. He led her to the library and held the door for her.
She walked in. Determined to maintain her composure, she looked around, and found every eye in the room—that of every man and woman in the clan—fixed on her. She blinked, but her mask didn’t slip. Glancing around, she searched for a place to sit. Every chair was occupied and people lined the walls, several bodies deep.
Behind her, Ferguson cleared his throat. When she looked his way, he waved her on—to the chair behind the big desk.
It was the only vacant chair in the room—and, apparently, had been reserved for her. Keeping the frown in her mind from her face, she made her way down the long room. That particular chair—behind the big desk that her father, her grandfather, and all the lairds before them had used—should have been reserved for the new laird.
Ferguson slipped past her and around the desk, then held the chair for her. Perhaps they meant to have some sort of ceremonial moment to signify the handing on of the lairdship.
She sat, then looked around. To one side stood Bradshaw, a strong man who had demonstrated his willingness to act for the good of the clan. But he was a touch belligerent. Forrester, another of the clan elders, stood alongside with his wife and family; he was a quiet but solid man. Perhaps too quiet. She scanned the rest—Phelps, Canning, and all the other possible candidates—searching for some sign…
Out of nowhere came the thought that the French aristocrats must have felt like this, waiting for the guillotine to fall.
Her gaze landed on Sean, and the head stableman made a get-on-with-it gesture.
She blinked, then swung slightly to look up and back at Ferguson.
The big man opened his eyes at her, clearly expecting her to…lead the meeting?
She drew in a breath and glanced around again; everyone was waiting for her to speak. Clasping her hands on the desk, she cleared her throat; her voice sounded a trifle husky, but her memory supplied the right words. “In keeping with clan custom, we’re gathered here today to elect a new laird.” She glanced again at Ferguson; he had retreated to stand to the side with old Egan. “Do you have the list of nominees?”
Ferguson replied, “There’s only one name on the clan’s list.”
“Only one?” While that would make matters easier, she’d felt sure the position would be hotly contested between at least three families—the Bradshaws, the Phelpses, and the Cannings.
Ferguson’s gaze didn’t shift from her face. “We’ve been talking for the past days, ever since your brother took his life—and, truth be told, even before that. But when it came down to it, there’s only one person all the clan families will agree to follow—so that’s the person we need to lead the clan, and no other.”
Glancing around, she saw Bradshaw, Forrester, and all the others—and their wives—nodding in earnest agreement. “Well.” She drew in a breath. “That’s excellent. We won’t even need to vote.” And whoever it was would know they took the job with the unequivocal backing of the entire clan. She looked at Ferguson. “So, the name?”
Ferguson held her gaze. “Niniver Eileen Carrick.”
It had been a decade at least since she’d been addressed by her full name. She blinked. “Yes?”
Ferguson’s gaze bored into hers. His lips compressed, then he stated, “That’s the name on our list.”
She stopped breathing. She felt her eyes grow round, then rounder still. Her lips parted… She forced in a strangled breath and said, “You want me to be the laird…the lady?”
Emotion crashed into her; the realization—the confirmation she received as she looked once more around the room—was almost too great to assimilate. For a long moment, she let the impact roll over and through her. Given her vow to her father, given the clear support of the entire clan…
Moistening her lips, in a quieter tone, she asked, “Why me?”
Somewhat to her surprise, they told her.
She’d had no idea that all her life they’d been watching, that they’d seen not just the quiet girl-child, not just the young woman she’d grown to be, but the woman she truly was inside. They’d seen, they’d understood, and they’d chosen her.
She was touched, she was…slain by their faith, empowered by their trust, anchored by their confidence.
And she couldn’t refuse them, couldn’t say no.
She had no choice—and no other inclination—but to swallow the lump in her throat, summon the inner strength that had long been hers, and say clearly, “Thank you. I accept.”
And with those simple words, she became the Lady of Clan Carrick.
March 1850; nearly a year later
The Carrick Estate, Dumfries and Galloway
Niniver leaned low over Oswald’s neck and let the big bay gelding run. The wind of their passage whipped over her cheeks and tore tendrils of hair loose from the knot on the top of her head. She didn’t care; she just wanted to fly before the wind and forget about everything else.
The thunderous pounding of Oswald’s heavy hoofs, the bunch and release of the horse’s powerful muscles, filled her mind—and pushed out the frustrations that had threatened to overwhelm her. While she raced over the fields, she had no room in her head to dwell on the irritations, annoyances, petty nuisances, and simply idiotic behavior that had provoked her to near-fury.
What were they thinking? Were they even thinking? Or were they simply reacting to a situation they didn’t know how to interpret?
She’d ridden east from the manor, over the flatter fields, wanting—needing—to gallop. But the clan’s lands ended at the highway. Ahead, beyond the edge of the fields, the ribbon of macadam glimmered. Normally, she would have slowed at that point, drawn rein, and come around.
Crouching low, she let Oswald thunder on.
Because today she needed more than just exercise. Today, she needed something akin to an exorcism—before she lost her temper and blasted her importunate clansmen in a way that would shrivel their manly confidence forever.
Giving Oswald his head, she let the gelding jump the stone wall that marked the boundary of the Carrick estate. Two giant strides later, the horse gathered himself again and flew over the drystone wall on the other side of the road.
Niniver heard a shout from behind her—from Sean, who, as always, was tagging along as her groom—but she pretended not to hear and let Oswald race on toward what had in years past been their favorite valley for a gallop. The horse remembered, as did she, but she hadn’t ridden that way since Marcus Cynster had bought the old Hennessy property and made it his.
Usually, she avoided any chance of meeting her neighbor anywhere, much less on his lands.
But not today. Today, her clansmen had pushed her too far. She needed this run, and truly, the chances of meeting Marcus in the narrow valley were slight. She would race to the end, then turn and race back, and he would never know she’d been there.
The long, narrow valley curved and wound deep into the old Hennessy estate. Sinking into the moment, she let herself become one with her horse and galloped wild and free.
But when she reached the rise at the end of the valley, Oswald was tiring. Deeming it wise to let the horse rest before heading back to the manor, she eased up, and let the gelding slowly climb the rise. There was a twisted tree at the top, its canopy casting sufficient shade to provide a pleasant spot out of the afternoon sunshine.
She’d barely noticed the sun was shining until then. With her very pale skin, she had to be wary of freckling, and she wasn’t wearing a hat.
Drawing rein in the shade, she remembered that the vantage point allowed her to look down on the old Hennessy farmhouse. Built of faded red bricks with lintels of local stone, the solid house sat nestled comfortably on a shelf of land, with the usual outbuildings neatly arrayed around it. Thin streams of smoke rose from two of the many stone chimneys.
She’d heard that Marcus had renamed the house and estate Bidealeigh.
Her eyes drinking in the peaceful scene, she eased the reins and let Oswald idly crop the coarse grass while she waited for Sean to catch up. He wouldn’t say anything when he did; he knew what had sent her off in such a temper.
She’d been the Lady of Clan Carrick for almost a year. The first months of her reign, over late spring and through last summer up until harvesttime, had been intensely busy, not just for her but for all the clan as she and the clan elders uncovered and came to terms with the depredations her brothers had visited on the estate. When she and Ferguson had first sat down with the estate’s ledgers, she’d wondered what all the fuss—all the worry—had been for. Then she’d stumbled on the second set of accounts—the ones Nolan had kept hidden. The ones that had shown the true level of the clan’s coffers and also testified to the parlous state of the clan’s enterprises.
That had been a sobering time, but under her leadership, the clan elders had rallied, and, together, they’d devised and put into place a plan to resurrect the clan’s finances, one designed to get the clan back on its financial feet and heading toward the road to prosperity.
They hadn’t made it to that road yet, but at least they were moving in the right direction.
But then autumn had set in and winter had followed, and the snows and storms had kept everyone indoors. The pace of work naturally slowed to a crawl, and suddenly, the younger men who’d been kept busy all summer had time to think.
Too many had chosen to think about her.
Because she was still unwed.
What the dimwits failed to realize was that, as lady of a clan—especially a clan like the Carricks, especially given the straits the clan was in—marriage was not in her cards. She was the only remaining member of the original Carrick line, while the rest of the clan was composed of many families who, through the passage of generations, were now only distantly related by blood, yet they were held together by common purpose and cause and a common share in the clan estate. The clan had elected her to lead them for a very good reason—namely, that she was the only one all the clan families would agree to follow.
And that was the critical point. The clan followed her.
Any man offering for her hand would expect that he would be entitled through their marriage to assume leadership of the clan.
That wasn’t going to happen, because she would never allow it to happen. She’d been entrusted with the position of Lady, and it was incumbent on her to always act for the good of the clan—and the good of the clan meant her keeping ultimate control of all clan matters.
After all she’d seen of the weaknesses of men, she wouldn’t trust any man with the clan’s reins, and there wasn’t a man born—or at least not one she might consider marrying—who would agree to take second place to her.
She’d accepted her unmarried state as inevitable—more, as desirable, at least for her. She still had her vow to her father to fulfill, and she would never let that go.
Unfortunately, several men in the clan, her age or older and as yet unwed themselves, had decided to vie for her hand. She’d tried to make clear that her hand wasn’t on offer to be claimed, but none of them believed her. Others in the clan, wiser heads, understood, but not the younger hotheads who seemed to have convinced themselves that if they just pushed her harder—did something wilder—she’d develop a lasting tendre for them and gladly surrender her hand and the clan.
That afternoon, looking forward to a peaceful ride, she’d walked into the stable yard and had come upon Clement Boswell and Jed Canning violently wrestling in the middle of the yard. Over her. They’d been yelling insults at each other and taking liberties claiming various favors from her—favors she had never granted.
They hadn’t seen her in time to shut up.
She’d wanted nothing more than to knock their heads together, to knock some sense into them, but she was a slip of a thing against their tree-trunk forms. Instead, she’d lost her temper and had screeched at them to stop.
They had, eventually, but by then she’d felt like a harridan and a shrew.
She’d clambered onto Oswald’s back in a fury with all men.
Luckily, the horse was a gelding.
Sean ambled up on his black and drew rein. He sat his horse alongside her and didn’t say a word.
He and the other clan elders understood, but even they were unable to help her—not in this.
She needed a champion, someone to take her side, to do what, as a delicate and fragile-looking female, she was unable to accomplish—namely intimidating her would-be suitors into accepting the truth, respecting her station, and leaving her alone.
She couldn’t call on Norris. He’d settled in comfortably to a life as an assistant to a history professor, and had secured a position teaching students at St. Andrews. It was a new and promising start for him. Besides, he wasn’t…man enough, old enough, impressive enough for her needs. She needed a man willing and able to fight for her, to defend her position.
Oswald shifted beneath her. Instinctively settling him, her gaze sharpened on the vista before her.
If you ever need help, remember that you can always call…on me. If you are ever in need, please don’t hesitate—just ask…
It had been nearly two years, but she could still hear Marcus Cynster’s deep voice saying those words. She knew he’d meant them.
And she could no longer pretend that she didn’t need help. The sort of help he could give.
She’d avoided even seeing him for what still ranked as an excellent reason, yet if she was to do what her clan needed her to do…
Gathering her reins, she glanced at Sean. “Wait here. I won’t be long.”
With that, she tapped Oswald’s side and headed down the rise to call on her nemesis.
* * *
Marcus Cynster was peering down the barrel of his shotgun when a sharp rap fell on his front door. He raised his head; his hands still busy cleaning the gun, he waited to hear the heavy footsteps of Flyte, his majordomo, heading for the door.
Then he remembered he was alone in the house. The Flytes—Mrs. as well as Mr.—had gone into Ayr, and Mindy, the maid who helped Mrs. Flyte with the housework, wasn’t on duty today.
He set down the shotgun on the canvas he’d spread over the pembroke table in his living room and headed for the door. As he ducked under the archway into the farmhouse’s small front foyer, another rap sounded, sharp, distinctly imperious, the heavy knocker plied with inherent command.
Even before he grasped the latch and swung the heavy oak panel wide, he was fairly certain whoever was there wasn’t one of his farmers come to report some problem.
He hadn’t expected the vision of loveliness that graced his front stoop.
He hadn’t seen Niniver Carrick in months, and even then, only from a distance.
Now he was close enough to see the soft color in her porcelain cheeks, the golden glints as the sun touched wayward strands of her pale blond hair, the delicate arches of her brown brows, and the intelligence in the cornflower-blue eyes beneath. The sensual promise in the lush curves of her full, rose-tinted lips was offset by the stubborn determination conveyed by the set of her chin.
He suspected few others registered either her intelligence or her stubbornness, distracted instead by the ethereal beauty, the fairy-princess picture she made. He saw the same—that distracting body—but he’d also always sensed what lay within.
Once again, he was face to face with that confounding reality, and more than close enough to be reminded why being near her wasn’t a wise idea. The attraction between them…he couldn’t remember when it hadn’t been there. Yet over the last years, intermittent sightings notwithstanding, it had grown.
If what he felt now, simply on setting eyes on her, was any indication, that uncontrollable attraction had only escalated further.
For several silent moments, she stared at him while he stared at her.
He managed to find his voice. “Niniver?”
His implied confusion broke the spell.
“May I come in?”
“Yes. Of course.” He stepped back, holding the door as she passed before him in a glide of black velvet riding jacket and brown velvet skirts. Glancing outside, he saw her usual mount, a big bay gelding, securely tied to the hitching post. A frown formed in his mind, although he kept it from his face. Had she been riding alone?
It wasn’t his place to ask. He reminded himself of that as he closed the door and followed her. She’d swept straight through into the living room. As he ducked beneath the archway, he saw her pause by the table, inspecting his endeavors. She turned as he crossed the room toward her.
She was petite, while he stood over six feet tall; her head barely reached his shoulder.
Rather than tower over her, he waved her to the pair of armchairs that faced each other across the wide hearth. He sensed rather than saw her approval of the courtesy as she walked on and, with a swish of her heavy skirts, sat.
He followed and sat in the other armchair. His gaze on her face, he tried to imagine what she was doing there—why, after all these months of no contact, she’d sought him out. When she volunteered nothing, just studied him, as if trying to imagine his likely reaction to some request, he said, “I would offer you some refreshment, but my housekeeper and majordomo have gone shopping. I don’t think you’d appreciate my efforts at making tea.”
She blinked, slowly, and he saw her absorb the information that she was alone with him in the house. If this was a social call…
She shook her head. “I didn’t come for tea. Or any other refreshment.”
Definitely not a social call, then. Her big blue eyes still measuring him, she caught her lower lip between her teeth—something he’d noticed she did when uncertain, or cogitating about something that bothered her. Him? Or what had brought her there?
He sat back, attempting to look as unthreatening—as encouraging—as he could. “So, how can I help you?”
Now she was there, face to face with him, Niniver had second and even third thoughts about the wisdom of her course, but she still needed help. She desperately needed a champion, and there he sat, the perfect man for the task.
With his black locks—not true blue-black but black with an underlying hint of red, the very deepest mahogany—framing his face, one dark lock falling rakishly over his broad forehead, sitting as he was, relaxed and at his ease, his long-fingered hands elegantly disposed on the chair’s arms, his muscled horseman’s thighs, long, buckskin-clad legs, and top-booted feet arranged in an innately graceful pose, he should have appeared no more dangerous than any London dandy. Instead, a tangible aura that seethed with restrained power, edged with menace, emanated from him.
As a deterrent to her importuning suitors, she couldn’t imagine finding better.
Squelching all caution, she met his dark blue gaze—a midnight blue so dark it was difficult if not impossible to guess his thoughts. “Remember that promise you made to me up at the lookout?”
He blinked, dense black lashes briefly screening his eyes before they rose again, and he pinned her with his gaze. “That if you needed help, you could count on me—that you only needed to ask?”
She nodded—once, decisively. “Yes. That.” She paused to marshal her words. “I need help with a particular problem, and I think—I believe—that you are the most appropriate person to ask for assistance—the person most likely to be able to help me resolve the issue.”
He was now considering her exactly as she’d previously considered him. “And your particular problem is?”
“Men.” The word slipped out before she’d thought. She grimaced and forged on, “Specific men—namely men of the clan who assume I must be looking for a husband, and who are putting themselves forward overenthusiastically.” She couldn’t hide her irritation; it underscored her tone.
To her surprise, Marcus…stilled. There was no other word for it. His gaze remained on her—he was still looking at her—yet she got the distinct impression he was seeing something else. That he was viewing something beyond her.
He barely seemed to breathe.
But then he blinked, and he seemed to draw back, pull back. He hesitated, then asked, “How…enthusiastic have they been?”
His voice had lowered, deepened. For an instant, she wondered if she was doing the right thing in setting him on her poor unsuspecting clansmen. Then she remembered the scene in the stable yard. She tipped up her chin. “I suppose you could say that, each in their own way, they’ve been trying to woo me, but they keep tripping over each other, and then they clash. But even worse, they egg each other on to ever more ridiculous exploits, ones that are harder and harder for me to…avoid.”
Put into words, the situation didn’t sound that bad, but to her, it was seriously bothersome, and more worrying than she could easily convey. “I know it sounds silly, but I have a position within the clan to maintain, and with matters as fraught as they are at the moment, having to deal with idiotic behavior directed toward me personally, behavior that tends to—well, belittle me—is distracting, disturbing, and sometimes unnerving. On top of that, some of the men involved are sons of clan elders, and that adds a certain political constraint to how blatantly I can repel their advances.” She blew out a breath. “I need someone who will simply step in and tell them all to stop. Someone they’ll listen to—because not one of them pays a posset’s worth of attention to me.”
The last words came out on a tide of frustration.
Marcus’s instincts pummeled and pushed him to volunteer, to leap to her defense, especially against importunities of such a nature. But when it came to her, he didn’t know if he could—if he should—trust his instincts; far from protecting her—their immutable goal—they might, in such a case, lead him to unintentionally hurt her, and that was not a possibility he would ever willingly court. Not in this lifetime.
Protecting Niniver Carrick had become his personal touchstone, at least in guiding his actions with her. Yes, he was attracted to her—deeply, viscerally. So attracted that, as soon as he’d become aware of the nature of that attraction—at her father’s funeral, of all places—he’d asked his mother and his sister to see what The Lady, the deity their family served, could tell them of his future. But all they’d seen was that his fated future lay somewhere in The Lady’s lands, meaning somewhere in the local area, but at that time, all they’d been able to tell him was that his fated future was “not yet.”
Was it now? Was that why Niniver had come to him? Why she’d finally come to call in his promise of two years ago?
Was she his fated future, or…?
It was that “or” that had kept him from her through the intervening months. That, and his impossible to shake, impossible to deny, drive to protect her. If he’d approached her, if he’d wooed her as he’d wished, she might well have been happy to succumb—but what, then, if his fated future came calling, and said future was not with her?
He couldn’t harm her, so he’d had to keep his distance in case she wasn’t for him.
Knowing the ficklessness of Fate, he’d been disposed to believe that the very last woman Fate would hand him as his destiny was the one woman he desired—at least at this time, desired above all others.
He’d convinced himself that Fate would send him some female he’d never met before.
Instead, Niniver had come knocking at his door.
Was Fate laughing at him—or testing his mettle? Testing his commitment not to harm Niniver?
Or was this his destiny calling?
Her gaze had remained leveled on his face, the expectation in her expression patently clear. He shifted, straightening in his chair as he searched for options, for what other choices he—and she—might have. “I understand…your difficulty.” She was such a tiny thing, and quiet, and—as far as he knew—sweet-tempered. He knew her clan folk thought the world of her—quite obviously, as they’d elected her their lady. But she was kind-hearted and loved deerhounds; dealing with large angry men wasn’t something she was well equipped to do. “You need someone your clansmen respect, someone whose statements they’ll accept.”
He met her eyes; her gaze didn’t waver but remained fixed on his face. “What about Thomas? They know and respect him—and, what’s more, he’s clan himself.”
Her eyes narrowed a touch. “Thomas—as you must know as well as I do—has all he can handle with his daughters. I’m not going to ask him to come and rescue me. I wouldn’t do that to him, much less to Lucilla.”
Marcus inwardly winced at the implied rebuke. His twin sister had given birth to twin girls five months ago, and both Lucilla and Thomas were, indeed, fully engaged with caring for the tiny but demanding bundles of joy. “Indeed. You’re right.” No help there. He frowned. “What about Norris?” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs; her remaining brother was surely the right person to defend her. “I know he’s younger than you, but only by about a year—which means he’s what? Twenty-five?” Old enough.
Her lips firmed into a line. Her eyes narrowed further. “I’m twenty-five—he’s not yet twenty-four. But he left. He’s pursuing his own life in St. Andrews, and I’m not about to call him home—besides which, none of the men in the clan would pay the slightest attention to him.”
Niniver paused but felt compelled to push. “I need someone with standing. With a status that will command attention at least, if not outright obedience.”
She needed someone like him; that was so obvious it barely needed stating.
Abruptly, she stood. When he started to rise, too, she brusquely waved him back; the last thing she needed was a crick in her neck. She started to pace back and forth across his hearth. She only paced when she was agitated or anxious; she’d worked to break herself of the habit—it revealed too much—but in this instance, she wasn’t sure she cared.
She’d steeled herself to do this—to hide her reaction to him, to ignore the waves of prickling awareness that washed over her skin whenever he was near. She’d told herself she could face him and ask him to honor his promise even if he wasn’t attracted to her, as she, so very definitely, was to him. She’d pushed herself to do it, and she’d done it and asked, but for some reason, he was now reluctant.
The realization didn’t please her at all. Now that she was there, making her case, she wasn’t about to let him off any hook she could find. “I had hoped”—pausing and facing him, she enunciated the words evenly, endeavoring to remove all emotion from them—“that you would see your way to assisting me in dealing with this situation as a favor to a neighbor.”
His face was all chiseled angles and planes, sharply prominent cheekbones above lean cheeks. His lips were mobile, fascinatingly so, but as he looked up at her, his blatantly squared chin left no doubt of his ability to remain unmoved. The arrogance born of supreme confidence etched his features, yet as she met his eyes, she saw that her comment had reached past his façade; even though he gave no sign, she knew she’d prodded him in a sensitive spot. Neighborly assistance, if requested, was taken for granted in the country.
She’d avoided him for months, and if her senses’ preoccupation with his appearance—with every little thing about him—was any guide, that had been one of her wiser decisions. Even though she’d remembered his promise, she’d previously hesitated to ask for his help precisely because of the unnerving attraction—avid and compelling—she felt for him. Because that attraction was obviously one sided. He was a Cynster; she knew what sort of man he was—a gentleman descended from a noble line and with all the natural arrogance and confidence that background bestowed. If he’d harbored any interest in her, he would have approached her—he would have let her know.
Just as her idiot clansmen were doing, but doubtless with more panache.
His dark gaze had locked on her. “How, exactly, do you imagine I, as a neighbor, might aid you?”
She swung around and continued pacing; she hadn’t actually thought that far, but since he’d asked… “If you would come to Carrick Manor and spend time there—long enough for the others to notice, or for you to have a chance to…” She vaguely waved.
“Redirect their thinking?”
“Yes—exactly.” She glanced at him as she turned. “Intimidation wouldn’t go amiss, either.”
Marcus pressed his lips tight, fighting a grin. Then his thoughts rolled on, and he sobered. “How long do you imagine this…communicating of your disinterest in marrying your clansmen will take?”
She frowned. “A week? Two?”
Two days would be too long for him. He understood what she was suggesting, but acting as a shield for her would, of necessity, mean spending that time all but glued to her side—and he could all too readily predict the outcome of such enforced propinquity. Blue balls wasn’t a condition most men courted, and he was no exception.
She was looking at him hopefully. He hardened his heart and raised the point to which she seemed oblivious. “You said you’re twenty-five. As you’re now also lady of your clan, I assume you’ve considered your prospects for marriage. Why not simply make your choice now and be done with it?”
She halted in her pacing and stared at him; the expression on her face wasn’t one he could interpret. Then she stated, “I have no intention of marrying. Not now, not later.”
Something within him jerked to attention; he slapped it down. Now was not the time to go leaping on challenges—especially not challenges like that. He frowned. “Why not?” Greatly daring, he asked, albeit more gently, “Don’t you want a husband and children?” His sisters, his female cousins, those of marriageable age, talked of little else.
But Niniver swung away and paced across the hearth; when she turned back, her expression was composed. “What I wish for is not the point. As lady of the clan, I can’t marry.”
His frown deepening, he continued to study her. “I still don’t see why.” He made the statement without inflection, an invitation to explain if she would.
She sighed; her luscious lips twisted in a grimace. “I’m the only one holding the clan together—if I hadn’t been there to elect as lady, the clan would have fragmented. I didn’t realize how near a thing it was, but Sean and Ferguson both eventually told me.” She halted and looked down as if studying the flagstones. After a moment, she went on, “Papa gave his life to the clan. He held it together, and I can’t, in all conscience, not make the best attempt I can to do the same.” She raised her head and met his gaze. “And given I’m a female, that means not marrying, because any man I marry will expect to replace me as head of the clan, and if such a thing occurred, the clan would almost certainly break apart.”
He held her gaze while he considered that conundrum. The challenge had just become even more challenging… What was he thinking? He honestly wasn’t sure, and with her pacing back and forth within arm’s reach, he wasn’t at all confident his normal mental prowess would return any time soon.
Niniver sensed him drawing back; she couldn’t have said how—she simply knew. And while casting about for arguments with which to sway him, she’d just had the most hideous thought. Too hideously awful to think about now; she bundled it to the back of her mind, but its mere existence only underscored her need—her escalating desperation to secure Marcus’s help. Before she lost her courage, she baldly asked, “Will you help me?”
He didn’t reply. After a second, he glanced away from her.
And her temper slipped its leash.
Sorely tried by the day’s events—poked and pricked by the confrontation in the stable yard, fueled by the realization that she couldn’t deal with the escalating situation by herself and truly had to plead for help, spiked by the sudden thought of what might occur if she didn’t secure effective help and successfully dissuade her would-be clan suitors, and now scraped raw by the understanding that all she’d pushed herself through to be standing where she was—having revealed all she had—had gained her nothing…her temper spiraled out of her reach.
Her lips set. With a furious swish of her skirts, she turned and paced away across the fireplace. The sound of her boot heels striking the flags testified to the emotions roiling inside her.
She halted. He’d sounded weary. Bored? And resigned.
Facing away from him, she filled her lungs and raised her head. He was going to refuse to help.
Her temper boiled over.
She looked up and raised her hands to the ceiling. In a voice that shook, she implored, “Can I count on no man at all?”
She whirled, intending to look scornfully back at him—
Her hand, swinging down, powered by the violence of her turn, collected a tall candlestick that had been sitting on a small shelf projecting from the mantelpiece. The candlestick went flying.
She was still turning when she heard a solid thunk. She came fully around as the heavy candlestick clattered on the stone floor.
Marcus, eyes closed, sat slumped in the chair.
“Oh, my God!” Had she killed him?
Heart thudding, she rushed to his side. His head lolled; grasping his shoulders, she tried to press them back, but his weight was too great for her to shift. Hauling aside her skirts, she crouched by the chair and tried to look into his face.
He didn’t look dead. She was fairly sure he was still breathing.
Fighting back panic, she pressed her fingers to her lips—then reached out and wriggled her fingers beneath his neckerchief, searching for a pulse…
Strong and steady, his pulse throbbed beneath her fingertips.
She exhaled and, slowly, drew her fingers free.
She remained crouched beside the chair, waiting for him to stir…but he didn’t.
Tipping her head, her gaze tracking over his face, examining his unresponsive features, she frowned.
After a moment, she straightened and rose to her feet.
She stood looking down at him for several more seconds. Eyes narrowing, lips compressing, she debated whether she dared…
She decided that she did—that she would.
Turning, she headed for the door.
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