“Good morning, Mr. Carrick.”
Thomas looked up from furling his umbrella and smiled at Mrs. Manning, the middle-aged receptionist seated behind her desk to one side of the foyer of the Carrick Enterprises office.
Mrs. Manning held out a commanding hand. “Let me take that for you, sir.”
As the door to the stairwell swung closed behind him, Thomas strolled across and dutifully handed over the umbrella.
Mrs. Manning’s thin lips curved approvingly as she took it; despite her habitually stern demeanor, she had a soft spot for Thomas. The company offices occupied the front half of the first floor of a building on Trongate, close to the bustling heart of the city, and the widowed matron ruled over her empire with a firm but benign hand.
“You have no meetings scheduled this morning, Mr. Carrick—just the discussion with the Colliers late this afternoon.” Mrs. Manning glanced across the room. “And nothing’s come in this morning that falls to you.”
Opposite the reception desk, a long polished counter ran along the wall, and there were numerous pigeonholes set in the wall above. Before the counter, Dobson, the general clerk, was quietly sorting letters and deliveries; an ex-soldier and man of few words, he nodded in acknowledgment when Thomas glanced his way.
Turning back to Mrs. Manning, Thomas murmured, “In that case, I’ll take the opportunity to go over last month’s accounts.”
“You’ll find them on the bureau behind your desk, sir.”
The foyer was paneled with fine-grained oak. The half-glassed door through which Thomas had come bore the company name and logo—the outline of a steamship superimposed on a square crate—in exquisitely wrought gilt signage. Round marbled-glass bowls suspended by heavy chains from the stamped-metal ceiling shed the steady glow of gaslight upon the scene. The ambiance was all restrained prosperity—the sort that was so assured no one thought to make anything of it.
Yet it wasn’t old money behind Carrick Enterprises. Thomas’s late father, Niall, had started the import-export business thirty-five years ago; as a second son with no inheritance, Niall had had to make his own way in the world.
In that, Niall had been joined by his brother-in-law, Quentin Hemmings. Although Thomas’s father had died long ago, Quentin was still very much a part of the day-to-day running of Carrick Enterprises.
As Thomas headed for the open door leading to the inner offices, Quentin appeared, filling the doorway, his gaze on a sheaf of papers in his hands.
Almost as tall as Thomas, Quentin exuded the air of a gentleman of ample means quietly yet definitely satisfied with his lot—and, indeed, marriage, family, and business had all treated Quentin well. His brown hair might have been thinning somewhat, yet his face and figure remained that of a vigorous man still engaged with all aspects of life.
Sensing an obstacle in his path, Quentin glanced up. His face lit as his gaze landed on Thomas. “Thomas, my boy. Good morning.” Quentin brandished the papers he held. “The contracts with Bermuda Sugar Corporation.” Quentin’s hazel gaze sharpened. “There’s just one thing…”
Fifteen minutes later, after having agreed that Quentin should seek further assurances as to delivery dates from Bermuda Sugar, Thomas finally stepped through the doorway and strode down a narrow corridor. Lined with offices on the side overlooking the street and with storerooms on the other, the corridor ended at an imposing door that led into a large corner office—Thomas’s. Quentin’s office lay at the other end of the corridor, filling the other front corner of the building.
Thomas was five paces from his door when another tall gentleman stepped out of the adjacent office, papers in hand—Thomas’s cousin Humphrey, Quentin’s only son; he glanced up, saw Thomas, and halted, grinning.
When Thomas paused alongside him and arched a laconic brow, Humphrey’s grin turned puckish. “You are going to have to choose which of Glasgow’s finest you favor, and soon, or the situation will descend into feminine war. And when it comes to hostilities, ladies are more inventive than Napoleon ever was. There will be blood on the ballroom floors—metaphorically speaking, at least. Mark my words, young man!”
Thomas chuckled. “Where did you hear that? Or should I say from whom?”
“Old Lady Anglesey. She collared me and bent my ear over you and your peripatetic interest. Luckily,” Humphrey went on, “I was clinging to Andrea’s arm and she acted as my shield, but I was nevertheless conscripted as a messenger.” Andrea was Humphrey’s intended, although they were not yet formally engaged.
Along with Humphrey, Thomas had accompanied Quentin and his wife, Winifred, to a society soirée the previous evening. Considered one of the most eligible bachelors in Glasgow, Thomas was a target for the matchmakers, and even more for enterprising young ladies attracted by his appearance and persona as much as by his wealth.
Thomas heaved a sigh. “I suppose I’ll have to choose sometime, but I keep hoping I’ll find someone like Andrea.” Someone who fixed his interest and held his attention. Someone with whom he felt a real connection.
“Ah, well.” Still grinning, Humphrey clapped Thomas on the shoulder. “We can’t all have the luck of the gods.”
Thomas laughed. He glanced at the papers in Humphrey’s hands.
Humphrey promptly waved them. “Rosewood headed for Bristol.” Excitement tinged his tone. “I think I can persuade the company that Glasgow would be a better destination.”
“That would make a nice addition to the mahogany we’ve coming in.” Thomas nodded. “Let me know if you pull it off.”
“Oh, you’ll hear—you’ll definitely hear.” With another wave of the papers, Humphrey took off down the corridor, no doubt to consult with one of their brokers about how best to wrest—not to say steal—the deal away from the Bristol merchants.
Thomas stepped into his office. He shrugged out of his greatcoat and hung it on the stand behind the door, then closed the door and walked to his desk. He didn’t immediately round it and sit in the chair, but instead he paused before it. His fingertips lightly brushing the desk’s smooth surface, he gazed out of the corner window. The bustling thoroughfare of Trongate stretched before him, thronged with carriages and pedestrians going about their business; the calls of drivers and the cracks of their whips came faintly through the glass. From the left, through a gap between two buildings, the glint of fleeting sunshine reflecting off the pewter waters of the Clyde drew his eye.
This office, this place—Thomas had elected to make this the center of his life. He intended to craft an engaging life around his position as half owner of Carrick Enterprises, and the next step along the path to his goal was to select a suitable wife. The right sort of wife for a gentleman of the type he intended to become—a pillar of the wealthy business community with a supportive wife on his arm, with children attending the right schools, and a house in the best quarter. Perhaps a hunting box in the Highlands. He had it all reasonably clear in his mind.
Except for one thing. The first thing.
No matter how many young ladies of good family, passable or better beauty, and impeccable social credentials his aunt steered his way, he simply didn’t—couldn’t—see any of them as his.
Not while Lucilla Cynster still stood so vibrant and real in his mind.
By deliberate design, he hadn’t set eyes on her for more than two years; he’d hoped the inexplicable grip she seemed to have on his psyche would fade if it wasn’t fed—if his eyes didn’t see her, if he didn’t hear her voice, if his awareness wasn’t teased, abraded, and impinged on by her nearness. Yet it hadn’t.
He didn’t even have to close his eyes to conjure her in his mind, with her emerald-green eyes slightly tip-tilted in a finely featured face haloed by fire-red hair; the colors of her eyes, soft pale pink lips, and that flaming hair were rendered even more vibrant by the unblemished ivory of her alabaster complexion.
Every other young lady he saw paled in comparison. They were insipid. Colorless.
And not just in appearance; Lucilla’s vibrancy extended to her soul and was something that marked her, in Thomas’s experience, as unique.
She attracted him, captured his senses, and commanded his awareness at some level beyond understanding. His understanding, at least.
She was considered a witch of sorts; it wasn’t hard to see why.
For instance, there he was, standing and thinking of her when it was quite definitely the last thing he wanted, much less needed, to do.
Brusquely shaking his head, shaking all thoughts and visions of Lucilla from the forefront of his brain, he rounded the desk and sat in the comfortable leather chair behind it. If trying to focus on which young lady might be suitable as his wife was hopeless, at least he could deal with business—one aspect of his life in which thoughts of Lucilla rarely intruded.
He spent the next hours reviewing the company’s past month’s trading. All was going excellently well; along with the port, trade of all sorts was booming, and the company was well placed to reap the harvest his late father and Quentin had long ago sown. Although Quentin was still fully active in the firm, Thomas and Humphrey saw themselves as the ones to grow the company into the future, something Quentin openly encouraged.
Business was good. It was absorbing, too.
A tap on his door had him glancing up. “Come.”
The door opened, and Dobson entered, a small sheaf of letters in his hand. “Mail, sir. Just got in.”
“Thank you, Dobson.” Thomas set down his pen, leaned back, and stretched his arms over his head.
Dobson set the letters on the tray on the corner of Thomas’s desk and, with a taciturn nod, retreated, closing the door behind him.
Thomas lowered his arms, relaxed for a moment, then sat up and reached for the letters. There were five. Sorting through them, he found three notifications from the company’s bank, detailing payments made. One thick envelope was from a shipping captain Thomas knew, who occasionally reported on prospects he came across in far-flung ports that he thought Carrick Enterprises might be interested in pursuing. That missive in his hand, Thomas was reaching for his letter knife when his gaze fell on the last letter in the pile.
The plain envelope was addressed to Mr. Thomas Carrick, with the “Carrick” heavily underlined. Across the corner opposite the post-office stamp was scrawled: Bradshaw, Carrick.
Setting aside the captain’s letter, Thomas picked up the one from Bradshaw and squinted at the stamp.
Frowning, Thomas lifted the letter knife and slit open the envelope. There were two sheets inside. Sliding them out, he smoothed the pages, then leaned back in his chair and read.
And grew increasingly puzzled.
The missive was, indeed, from Bradshaw, a farmer on the Carrick estate. Thomas’s paternal uncle was Manachan Carrick—The Carrick, laird of the clan. Thomas had been born at Carrick Manor, on the estate, although that had been an accident of sorts, a twist of fate. He’d spent several summers there with his parents while they’d been alive; after their deaths when Thomas was ten, he’d spent a full year at the manor, embraced, nurtured, and supported by the clan. He owed Manachan and the clan a great deal for that year, but as time had passed and he’d healed and returned to normal boyhood life, Manachan and Quentin, his co-guardians, had decided that Thomas would be best served by going to school in Glasgow and living with Quentin and Winifred and their children. And so he had.
Thomas had still visited the Carricks every summer, spending anything from a few weeks to a few months with Manachan’s four children and other children of the clan, but even more with Manachan himself.
Thomas had been—and still remained—closer to Manachan than even to Quentin, whom he saw every day. Even when much younger, Thomas had intuitively realized that Manachan and Niall had been close, and with Niall’s death, Manachan had transferred that degree of closeness, of connection, to Thomas, Niall’s only child.
Quentin, Winifred, and Humphrey were Thomas’s Glasgow family, yet Manachan was the family closest to his heart. Thomas understood Manachan and Manachan understood him, and that understanding sprang from something deep in their bones.
It was precisely that understanding that made Bradshaw’s letter so difficult to comprehend.
Not the details—they were plain enough. Bradshaw—Thomas could easily picture the burly man; he’d met him on and off over the years—wrote that, despite the season, by which he meant the planting season, being so advanced, no seed stock had as yet been supplied to any of the estate’s farmers.
Frown deepening, Thomas looked unseeing across the room while shifting his mind from shipping times and the effect of the seasons on transport, and delved into his memories to recall the impact of the march of the seasons on the land. The Carrick estate lay in the western lowlands, in Galloway and Dumfries. It was already late to be sowing, surely?
Refocusing on the letter, Thomas read again Bradshaw’s plea that he—Thomas—should intercede with Manachan over the matter of the seed supply.
“Why can’t Bradshaw speak with Manachan himself?”
That was what Thomas couldn’t understand. If there was a problem on the estate, then as laird of the clan, Manachan was the person to take that problem to. He always had been, and Thomas had never known any of the clan to feel the least reluctance over approaching his uncle. For all his fearsome reputation outside the clan, within it, Manachan was held in high esteem and, indeed, affection. He might be a cantankerous old bastard on occasion, but he was theirs, and to Thomas’s certain knowledge, Manachan had served the clan faithfully and had never, ever, let them down.
Manachan would fight to his last breath for the clan.
That was the role of the laird, one Manachan had been born to; it was the principle on which he’d lived his entire life.
Admittedly, Manachan was now ailing somewhat and, over the past year, had allowed his eldest son, Nigel, to assume some of the day-to-day running of the estate. But Thomas couldn’t imagine Manachan not keeping his hand on the tiller, much less not keeping abreast with all that was going on in the clan.
Thomas had learned of the change in estate management via letters, several from Manachan—although, now Thomas thought of it, none in recent months. A brief missive had come from the estate’s solicitor, and one from Nigel himself. Also a note from Nolan, Manachan’s second son, and one from Niniver, Manachan’s only daughter, inquiring when Thomas next planned to visit. None of those communications had spelled out the change, but rather had alluded to it.
Thomas hadn’t visited Carrick Manor for the last two years—the years during which he’d been trying, and failing, to steer his life forward—for the simple reason that Lucilla Cynster lived at Casphairn Manor, in the Vale of Casphairn, which abutted the southern border of the Carrick estate.
Ever since his fifteenth birthday, whenever he’d visited, he had—one way or another—run across Lucilla. Sometimes just to see, on other occasions to interact with. He would never forget the Christmas Eve they had shared, trapped by a blizzard in a tiny crofter cottage.
The last time he’d been at Carrick Manor, they’d met at the local Hunt Ball and had chatted and waltzed—and it seemed he would never forget that experience, either.
In order to forge ahead along his defined life path, he’d sought to expunge his memories of Lucilla by avoiding her—which had meant avoiding the Carrick estate.
Bradshaw’s letter suggested that something on the estate wasn’t quite as Thomas had thought. But was that fact, or was it Bradshaw’s interpretation? Or was it Thomas’s interpretation of Bradshaw’s interpretation?
Thomas pulled a face. He scanned the letter one last time, then tossed the sheets on his blotter. He stared at them, aware of the thick letter from the shipping captain waiting for him to open it and learn what exciting possibilities the New World might have to offer Carrick Enterprises…
Abruptly, he pushed back from the desk and stood.
When push came to shove, clan came before company.
He shrugged on his greatcoat, then glanced out of the window. The wind had increased; he picked up the hat he’d left on the stand the week before and strode out of the office.
In the foyer, Mrs. Manning wasn’t at her desk; she was doubtless taking dictation for Quentin or Humphrey. Dobson was beside his counter. When he looked up, Thomas met his gaze.
“I’m going for a walk.” The handsome clock on the wall above the pigeonholes showed the time as just before noon. “I’ll probably find lunch while I’m out. Please tell Mrs. Manning I’ll be back in plenty of time for the meeting with the Colliers.”
Dobson nodded. “Aye, sir.”
Thomas pushed through the outer door and went quickly down the stairs, then stepped out into the bustle of Trongate. He let his feet take him where they would—he knew the town so well he didn’t need to think of where to go, but simply what he needed.
Right now, he needed space, and air, and reasonable quiet in which to consider the likely possibilities and weigh his options. Down by the river, on Low Green above the banks of the Clyde, seemed appropriate to that part of his brain that directed his feet. He strode down Trongate, turned right into Saltmarket, and followed the pavement south toward the steel ribbon of the river.
His mind already juggling the possible implications of Bradshaw’s assertions—assertions that hadn’t exactly been spelt out—he was only dimly aware of those around him as he paced down the street.
But one voice reached through his abstraction and jerked him to awareness.
“I don’t know. It’s brown, after all. Why are they all brown this year?”
Thomas halted so precipitously the messenger following at his heels ran into him.
The boy bounced off, ducked, and muttered an apology, before scurrying around Thomas and continuing on.
Thomas barely noticed, his gaze riveted by the two men standing before the wide window of a gentleman’s outfitter; they were discussing the hats arrayed behind the glass.
Thomas blinked, then smiled. “Nigel. Nolan.”
The pair turned, surprise on their faces.
Thomas crossed the pavement and offered his hand. “Well met, both of you. What brings you to Glasgow?”
Not that he cared; whatever had brought them there, the pair were the answer to his not-quite-formulated prayer. Through them he could learn what was behind Bradshaw’s letter without journeying to Carrick Manor.
Nigel—the elder, fractionally taller than Nolan although several inches shorter than Thomas—looked blank for half a second, then he smiled. “Thomas!” He gripped Thomas’s proffered hand. “It’s good to see you!”
“Indeed.” Nolan—blond where Nigel was brown-haired, with blue eyes instead of Nigel’s brown—shook Thomas’s hand once Nigel released it. “We didn’t want to disturb you at work, and there’s so much to do here.” Nolan gestured about them. “Always something to fill the time.”
“How long have you been here?” Thomas asked.
“Just a day or so,” Nolan replied.
Thomas wanted to discuss Bradshaw’s letter, but the open street wasn’t the place. Sinking his hands into his greatcoat pockets, he asked, “Have you dined yet?”
Nigel shook his head. “We hadn’t got that far.”
Nolan pulled out a fob watch—a handsome piece Thomas hadn’t previously seen. Nolan glanced at the face. “Twelve already—I hadn’t realized.”
“If you haven’t any plans,” Thomas said, “let me take you to lunch at my club.” He tipped his head back the way he’d come. “The Prescott in Princes Street—it’s not far.”
The brothers exchanged a glance, then both turned similar smiles on Thomas. “Excellent notion,” Nigel said.
Nolan nodded. “It’ll give us a chance to catch up with how things are going with you—Papa always asks, and he’d love to know.”
* * *
It’ll give us a chance to catch up with how things are going with you.
The Prescott Club was the premier gentleman’s club in Glasgow, refined and restrainedly elegant. Over the following two hours spent within its hallowed precincts, in the grandly appointed dining room and later in a corner of the smoking room, Thomas discovered that Nolan’s words had been more polite response than actual intention.
When it came down to it, the pair were interested in little beyond themselves, and that little largely revolved about what entertainments were on offer that might appeal to their hedonistic souls.
Thomas had forgotten why it was that of Manachan’s four children, the company of these two—of his own sex and nearest to him in age—so grated on his nerves.
Nigel and Nolan were quick to remind him.
Although only thirteen months lay between Thomas and Nigel, with another thirteen months between Nigel and Nolan, the pair always made Thomas feel more like, if not their father, then at least an uncle. They always seemed a good decade his junior; their current focus on horses, all manner of horse racing, and lightskirts seemed more appropriate to young men of twenty or thereabouts rather than the pursuits of well-bred gentlemen in their late twenties.
The distinction, Thomas had to admit, was one of degree. Most of his friends appreciated fine horses, but the subject didn’t dominate their conversation. Most gentlemen of their age had a social interest in the sport of kings, but few were devotees of the track, much less the more questionable dives catering to the industry with which Nigel and Nolan seemed to be well acquainted. As for women, the difference between Thomas’s socially acceptable encounters with society’s bored matrons and Nigel and Nolan’s exploits in the local brothels could not have been more marked.
Glad that, it being lunchtime on a weekday, the club was only thinly patronized, Thomas waited out his cousins’ rambling, rather boastful discourse, and finally found the right moment to say, “From your letters, I gathered that you”—Thomas looked at Nigel—“have taken up the reins of the estate to some extent.”
Nigel responded to the question in the words and nodded. “The old man’s grown weak—too weak to ride about.”
“No real illness,” Nolan put in. Popping another candied walnut into his mouth, he shrugged. “Just old age.”
“Exactly.” Nigel glanced down at the table between them. “It was getting too much for him, so he asked me to help out—to take over the organizational side of things. Seeing to the farmers, that sort of thing. So I have been.”
In between gadding about, it seemed. Thomas swallowed the words and mildly said, “I’d heard that there was some problem with the seed supply this year—that the planting’s not yet done.”
Nigel made a scoffing sound and waved the comment aside. “All in hand. Going with a different system. It’ll work out better in the end for the clan. They just don’t realize that yet.”
Thomas wondered how not getting seed into the ground could possibly result in a better crop.
Before he could pursue the point, Nolan stirred. “Why do you ask?” When Thomas met Nolan’s blue eyes, Nolan arched his pale brows. “I didn’t realize you were keeping such close tabs on the estate, cuz.”
Thomas swiftly weighed his options, but could see no reason to prevaricate, and perhaps it was best that Nigel learned there was unease among the estate’s farmers, all of whom were clan. Thomas dipped his head to Nolan, acknowledging the point. “I’m not.” He looked at Nigel. “One of the farmers wrote to me and mentioned the matter as a problem.” Thomas could see no reason to mention Bradshaw’s name nor that the man had requested that Thomas speak directly to Manachan.
Now that he’d learned of his cousins’ recent exploits and taken the measure of their current interest in the estate, Thomas had to wonder if Nigel really was performing as well as he would no doubt like to think. Manachan’s shoes were large—very large.
Nigel fell ruminatively silent at Thomas’s words, as if digesting unwelcome news, but, eventually, he slowly nodded. “I didn’t realize they were put out by it. You can leave the issue with me—I’ll deal with it.”
Thomas hesitated, then offered, “It might well be that all that’s required is an explanation of your new strategy.” Whatever that might be.
“Indeed.” Nigel nodded more definitely. “I’ll take care of it.”
“We’re going back tonight.” Nolan drained his glass, set it down, and eased forward in his chair. Across the low table, he caught Nigel’s gaze. “We’d better get on.” Nolan glanced at Thomas and smiled. “And leave you to get back to your desk, cuz.”
Nigel humphed and finished his drink. Thomas did the same and rose as his cousins got to their feet.
Together, the three made their way out of the club. They paused on the steps to shake hands and, with faintly awkward expressions of familial bonhomie, to bid each other adieu.
Then Nigel and Nolan strode off to the stable where they’d left their curricle, and Thomas headed back to the bustle of Trongate.
* * *
Thomas sank into the chair behind his desk. The two pages of Bradshaw’s letter still lay on his blotter. He regarded them for a moment, then picked up the sheets, folded them, and set them in the bottom drawer to the left, where he kept all correspondence relating to the estate.
As he pushed the drawer closed, the question of what his cousins had been doing in Glasgow resurfaced in his mind. He’d asked, but they hadn’t actually replied, not specifically. They’d told him at length of all their carousing, real and quite possibly imagined, but they hadn’t touched on what had brought them there. Thomas knew the clan coffers would never stretch to cover the profligate lifestyle his cousins had described; he’d taken their descriptions with a very large grain of salt. They’d either exaggerated or fabricated. Possibly both.
Yet something—some reason—must have brought them to Glasgow. Why else had they come?
After a moment, he shrugged. “Presumably they came on estate business.” And, in reality, the estate and its business were no business of his. “And, thank God, I am not their keepers.”
With that heartfelt statement, he lifted the top file from the pile on his desk; opening it, he settled to review the company’s dealings with Colliers, a shipping line operating out of Manchester who were looking to expand their business in Glasgow, and who were hoping that Carrick Enterprises, with whom they had several lucrative agreements, would help ease their way.
Twenty minutes later, a tap on the door heralded Quentin. His uncle stood in the doorway regarding Thomas, then with a smile, Quentin nodded at the file in Thomas’s hands. “The Colliers?”
Thomas laid the file down. “They’ll be here at four.”
“Well, when you’re finished with them, don’t forget you’re expected for dinner in Stirling Street tonight.” When Thomas wrinkled his nose, Quentin grinned. “Your aunt sent a message, just in case you were in any danger of forgetting.”
Thomas sighed and tipped his head back against the chair’s raised back. “More young ladies.”
“Undoubtedly.” Quentin’s expression was amused. “As neither she nor you are going to give up, you’ll just have to weather the course.”
If only Thomas could be sure there would be a prize worth winning at the end. He raised his head and nodded. “I’ll be there.”
His grim tone had Quentin chuckling as he retreated down the corridor.
The interruption had broken Thomas’s concentration; his thoughts, freed, tugged him back to the question of what had brought his cousins to Glasgow…
He shook aside the distraction and refocused on the Colliers file. “Regardless of what brought them here, because they were here, I don’t need to go down to the estate—and for that, I should give thanks.”
And because he didn’t need to journey to the lowlands, he could concentrate on taking the next vital step in forging the life he wanted.
All he needed to do was find some young lady strong enough, vital and vibrant and enthralling enough, to oust Lucilla Cynster from his mind.
* * *
Two mornings later, Thomas walked into the Carrick Enterprises office to find Dobson standing before Mrs. Manning’s desk. Mrs. Manning was seated behind the desk as usual. Both she and Dobson were staring at a letter set prominently across the top of the blotter. There was a certain expectant tension in the air.
Dobson and Mrs. Manning glanced at Thomas, then Dobson reached for the letter, but Mrs. Manning snatched it up and held it out. “Good morning, Mr. Carrick. This just arrived by courier.”
“I see.” Strolling forward, Thomas took the packet. “Thank you.”
Dobson snorted. “Surprised the boy didn’t bowl you over.”
Thomas had seen a courier dart out of the building just before he’d reached it, but couriers were commonplace in that part of the city. He was wondering why this particular delivery had excited such concern when Mrs. Manning obligingly added, “It’s from Carsphairn, sir.”
Shock lanced through Thomas. “Ah.” Manachan? Or something else? He studied the envelope, but it wasn’t franked by his uncle’s hand… Was that good news or bad? “I’ll be in my office.”
Without haste, without again looking at the packet, he made his way down the corridor, into his office, and to his desk. Standing before it, he picked up the letter knife, slit the packet, and withdrew a single sheet of paper, folded twice. His face like stone, his emotions under tight control, he unfolded the sheet and read…
That the Bradshaws, the entire family of seven—Mr., Mrs., two sons, and three daughters—had been taken violently ill the day before. The family of the same Bradshaw who had previously written to Thomas.
The letter he held had been penned by a neighbor, Forrester. Forrester confirmed that, as Bradshaw had told Thomas, the seed stock for the farmers had not been delivered, and as far as anyone knew had not even been ordered, and no one knew want to do. Forrester explained that he and his family had called on the Bradshaws, who were kin, and discovered the entire family gravely ill and wracked with pain. Forrester stated that they’d sent for the clan healer, who lived at the manor. And that Bradshaw had begged Forrester to write to Thomas and let him know immediately—because they believed that someone hadn’t liked Bradshaw informing Thomas about the problem with the seed supply.
Lowering the letter, Thomas stared unseeing at the view down Trongate. “Good God.” Logically, there was no reason to link the Bradshaws’ sudden illness with Bradshaw writing to him about the seed supply. However, in the circumstances, he couldn’t swear that there was no connection. He had told Nigel and Nolan, and while he couldn’t imagine his cousins doing anything so nefarious—something idiotic, perhaps, but cold-bloodedly poisoning an entire family was something else again—he had no way of knowing who else they had told.
No way of knowing what was going on on the Carrick estate.
No way of guessing if someone else might have an interest in their farmers not being supplied with seed.
Families fell ill for all sorts of reasons. The healer had been sent for, thank heaven, and if the family were still alive… “Pray God she can pull them through.”
Thomas knew the healer, one Joy Burns, a woman devoted to her calling. She would do her best; that wasn’t in question.
Despite the unstated insinuation contained in the letter, at first glance, there seemed no reason to assume cause and effect. However, although Thomas hadn’t mentioned Bradshaw’s name, for anyone familiar with the people on the estate, it wouldn’t have been all that hard to guess that the outspoken and frequently belligerent Bradshaw had been the source of the complaint. And then the Bradshaw family had fallen ill—on the day after Nigel and Nolan had returned to Carrick Manor.
It wasn’t, Thomas realized, simply a case of three potentially connected facts—Bradshaw writing to Thomas, Thomas mentioning the matter to his cousins, and the Bradshaws falling ill—but also the timing. More than all the rest, it was the timing that made his hackles rise.
He’d been making his way in the business world for nearly a decade. If he’d stumbled across a situation like this in a business context, he wouldn’t be even entertaining the notion of coincidence.
He stood in his office, staring out of the window, while he struggled to make more from the scant facts he had.
When all was said and done, something was going on on the Carrick estate—and he had no idea what.
After several long moments evaluating his options, he swiveled on his heel, walked out into the corridor, and strode for Quentin’s office at the other end.
When push came to shove, clan trumped damn near all else.
It absolutely trumped personal considerations.
He couldn’t not go down to the estate and find out what was going on. He owed the clan, the Bradshaws and the Forresters, and even more, Manachan, that much, at least.
His interference might be unwanted, even unnecessary; he hoped the latter would prove to be the case, but regardless, he couldn’t ignore the renewed plea in Forrester’s letter.
He had to go back and do whatever he could. That was all there was to it.
It was midafternoon when Thomas rode into the stable yard behind Carrick Manor. The clang of his gray gelding’s hooves on the cobbles brought first one, then two, then three clansmen from the stable.
Sean reached Thomas first. The burly stableman caught Phantom’s bridle; as the big gray quieted, Sean looked up at Thomas, relief in his face. “You surely are a sight for sore eyes, laddie.”
Mitch and Fred came striding up, smiles on their faces, warmth in their eyes. “Welcome back, Mr. Thomas,” Fred called.
“Aye.” Mitch tipped his head back to meet Thomas’s eyes. “Good thing, too.”
Thomas returned their smiles. “It’s good to be back.” The response came by rote, yet, as he swung down from the saddle, he realized it was true. A sense of simple happiness, the expectation of meeting old friends and family he held dear, had slid through him in the instant he’d turned off the highway and started down the long drive.
Handing the reins to Mitch, he said, as much to himself as to the three men, “I shouldn’t have stayed away so long.”
Sobering, he glanced at Sean, the eldest of the three and officially the head stableman. “Forrester sent word about the Bradshaws.”
Whatever was going on, it wouldn’t involve these three. Thomas knew where their loyalties lay—with Manachan and the clan—and no power on earth could have changed that. Aside from all else, the three were, like Thomas, clan orphans, orphans Manachan had taken in and watched over.
“Aye.” The smile had fallen from Sean’s face, too. “Bad tidings.”
“Bad doings, you ask me,” Mitch growled.
Sean glanced at his subordinate—but, Thomas noted, Sean didn’t dismiss Mitch’s suggestion of foul play.
Thomas shifted. “I’ll see what the laird has to say.”
“Aye.” Fred nodded. “You do that. Be good that he knows.”
About to turn for the house, Thomas paused, his gaze on Fred’s bland countenance. Then he looked at Mitch and finally at Sean; the three didn’t meet his eyes but were glancing at each other. “Manachan has been told about the Bradshaws, hasn’t he?”
The three exchanged another glance, then Sean—still not meeting Thomas’s gaze, which Thomas found very odd—shrugged. “Can’t rightly say, can we? What we do know is that all in the house have been ordered not to tell hisself anything that might bother him.”
“Ordered on pain of being sent away,” Mitch added in another low growl.
Things were definitely not as they used to be—not as he’d assumed they were. Thomas gave a brief nod. “I’ll go and speak with him.”
As he turned away, Sean asked, “You staying?”
Striding for the house, Thomas glanced back. “I’ll probably ride out to the Bradshaws.” He nodded at Phantom. “Walk him for now.”
Sean tipped a finger in salute.
Facing forward, his hands in his greatcoat pockets, Thomas continued to the house, climbed the front steps, and crossed the porch to the front door. Unsurprised to find it unlocked—this was the country, and one of the more isolated pockets, at that—he opened the door and walked into the front hall.
Into a scene of domestic confusion.
Four figures stood in the middle of the hall, talking in quiet but urgent tones, and all showing signs of consternation. Ferguson, the butler, was frowning and looked worried, while the housekeeper, Mrs. Kennedy, was as distracted as Thomas had ever seen her. The two footmen, waiting nearby, were openly anxious.
All four glanced at Thomas as he paused just inside the open door. For one second, all looked blank; Thomas realized that with the light behind him, they couldn’t immediately see who he was. He reached back and pushed the door shut, then stepped forward; they recognized him, and relief washed over their features.
Thomas’s chest tightened. “I heard about the Bradshaws. I’ve come to see the laird.”
Beneath his breath, Ferguson muttered, “Thank God for that.” More loudly, he said, “Welcome back, Mr. Thomas.”
Mrs. Kennedy bobbed a curtsy and echoed the sentiment. The footmen, both of whom Thomas recognized from years past, nodded in greeting.
All were transparently glad to see him, which was nice in a way…and worrying in another.
Ferguson glanced at one of the footmen. “Grant can show you—”
Frowning, Thomas cut in, “Where is the laird?”
Ferguson and Mrs. Kennedy exchanged a glance, then Mrs. Kennedy carefully said, “In his room, sir. He rarely comes down, these days.”
Thomas managed not to swear. The last time he’d been there, Manachan had been striding around the place, hale and hearty. “I know the way—I’ll see myself up. But what’s your current problem?”
Another glance was exchanged, but this time it was—again—one of relief; all were glad he’d asked.
“It’s Faith Burns, sir.” Mrs. Kennedy gripped her hands tightly before her. “She’s the senior maid.”
Thomas nodded. “I remember her.”
“Yes, well.” Ferguson ran a hand through his hair, something Thomas had never seen the normally unflappable man do. “Faith’s gone missing. She was here last night. All was normal and as it should be. But she didn’t come down this morning—or, leastways, none of us have seen her.”
“Her bed’s made,” Mrs. Kennedy said. “But we can’t tell whether she slept in it or not.”
“And her sister—our healer, Joy—left last night to go out to the Bradshaws,” Ferguson explained, “so we can’t ask her if she knows where Faith’s got to.”
Mrs. Kennedy folded her arms and clasped her elbows. “It not like Faith to just up and go.”
“What about other family?” Thomas asked.
Ferguson shook his head. “They’re the last of the Burns, and neither of them married.”
Thomas thought, then grimaced. “I can’t see anything else you can do except keep searching. Get Sean and the others to ask around in case Faith had to leave for some reason last night.”
Ferguson nodded. “I’ll get Sean onto that.”
Mrs. Kennedy pulled a face. “I just can’t see Faith leaving without a word to us, but the Watts are second cousins. Sean might try them.”
Thomas suddenly realized what—or, rather, who—was missing. “Where’s Nigel?”
Ferguson didn’t actually sniff, but the impression was there. “Off to Ayr with Master Nolan. Left yesterday morning, bright and early.”
They’d ridden back from Glasgow only to leave the next day? Thomas struggled to keep his reaction from his face; what were the pair playing at? If Manachan was too ill to lead the clan, it was Nigel’s place to step up.
Thomas looked from Mrs. Kennedy to Ferguson. “Is Edgar with the laird?” Edgar was Manachan’s manservant, a silent and staunchly loyal man.
Ferguson nodded. “Edgar stays with the laird as much as he can. If he’s not fetching something, then he’s within call.”
Thomas fought to keep the frown from his face. They were speaking of Manachan as if he was an invalid… He shrugged out of his greatcoat and handed it to Ferguson. “I’ll go up. I’ll be with the laird if you need me.”
Stepping past the group, Thomas strode down the hall and beneath the archway into the adjoining hall that lay at the bottom of the main stairs. He took them two at a time.
The gallery was exactly as he remembered it; overall, very little seemed to have changed.
Except that Manachan was keeping to his room.
Thomas knew which room that was, but he had only rarely been inside. His uncle wasn’t young, but throughout Thomas’s life, Manachan had been hale and hearty, brazenly and boldly so.
Fronting the dark-stained oak door of the master suite, Thomas paused to steel himself against what he might find within. He’d known Manachan was “ailing,” but to his mind, an ailing Manachan had not equated to a man keeping to his room. “Ailing” certainly hadn’t suggested, at least to him, that Manachan would retreat from his people and essentially abdicate his role as laird.
That wasn’t the Manachan he knew.
He raised a fist and rapped lightly on the door, then waited.
He half expected to hear his uncle’s voice bellowing an irascible “Come.” Instead, soft footsteps approached the door, and it cracked open.
Edgar looked out; behind him the narrow foyer that linked Manachan’s bedchamber on one side and his sitting room on the other lay in semi-darkness. Tall and lean, his face all long planes and pallid skin, his dark hair falling across a wide brow, Edgar blinked at Thomas—then the relief that was making Thomas increasingly concerned flooded Edgar’s features.
“Mr. Thomas, sir! How very good it is to see you.”
There was not a shred of doubt in Thomas’s mind that Edgar’s heartfelt tone was an accurate reflection of the man’s feelings. Damn! What was going on?
Before he could ask to see Manachan, Edgar turned. Leaving the door open, an unspoken invitation, Edgar moved to Thomas’s left, into the bedroom. “Sir—look who’s come!”
Thomas stepped into the foyer. He paused for a second for his eyes to adjust to the dimness, then he closed the door and walked into the bedroom.
Manachan lay upon the bed, atop the covers and propped in a semi-reclining position on a mound of pillows. A shawl covered his legs, but he was dressed in shirt, cravat, and trousers, with a long velvet smoking jacket over all.
Although his skin was pasty, and he’d lost significant weight since Thomas had last seen him, Manachan was still a very large man. Although he no longer appeared robust in the sense of being vigorous, there remained a great deal of muscle and bone in his solid frame.
Yet just the act of turning his head toward the door spoke of weakness. Lassitude. The enormous, weighty lethargy of the chronically ill. The eyes that rose to Thomas’s face were the same soft blue he remembered, yet the sharpness and shrewdness that had been a hallmark of his uncle’s attention were…not missing, but faded and fuzzy.
Almost as if Manachan now viewed the world from a distance, through a screening veil.
Manachan’s gaze traveled over Thomas’s features, then his face softened and his lips curved in a smile. Weakly, he raised a hand. “Thomas, m’boy. Good of you to visit.”
He went forward and took Manachan’s hand in one of his; with his other hand, he lifted a straight-backed chair, positioned it beside the bed, and sat. Still gripping Manachan’s hand, he studied his uncle’s face and tried to mask his shock.
Manachan might have grown weak, yet his faculties seemed intact. His expression turned wry. “No, I’m not dying. Just brought low. But I’m not getting any worse, although I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse.”
Edgar made a distressed shush-ing sound.
Thomas caught Manachan’s gaze. “How long? How long have you been like this—confined to your room?”
Manachan arched his brows as if trying to remember, then glanced at Edgar.
“He was first struck down last August,” Edgar quietly supplied. “He’s been up and down since then, but never back to his old self.”
Manachan snorted. “Sadly, not even close to my old self. It seems that old self of mine has slid away, and this is the best that’s left.” Manachan’s gaze grew sharper. “Not much use to anyone anymore, but luckily Nigel is here to take over.”
“You’re still the laird.” Edgar said it before Thomas could, and there was a wealth of defensive stubbornness in the words.
Manachan snorted dismissively. “Not much of a laird, given I can’t get out and about to see what’s what.”
When Manachan glanced his way, Thomas met his gaze. “Speaking of what’s what, why didn’t you write and tell me?”
Manachan lifted his heavy shoulders in a slight shrug. “What’s to tell? I’m old, boy. My past misdemeanors are catching up with me, and I just have to bear it. Old age comes to us all.”
Thomas cast a reproachful glance at Edgar.
The thin man responded, “We were instructed that you were not to be bothered with…the master’s failing.”
Thomas looked back at Manachan.
Manachan squeezed his hand. “Allow me my dignity, boy. No one but those who have to need to see how low I’ve sunk.”
It wasn’t easy, but Thomas forced himself to swallow that—along with the acid guilt that he hadn’t come back to the estate before now, that he’d stayed away for the past two years purely in pursuit of his own agenda and a cowardly wish to avoid Lucilla Cynster.
He drew a deep breath, and let it out with, “Very well—I’ll allow, but that doesn’t mean I agree.”
There was so much he didn’t agree with about Manachan’s current situation that he wasn’t sure where to start, but today, there were more urgent matters on his plate.
Refocusing on the problems immediately before him—those facing the clan and the lairdship—he recaptured Manachan’s gaze. “I received a letter from Bradshaw, and also one from Forrester, saying there were problems with the supply of seed stock for the season’s plantings. They wanted me to intercede with you about the matter.”
Manachan frowned, the expression starting in his eyes and slowly transforming his face. “Seed supply? But….” His gaze grew puzzled, then Manachan glanced at Edgar. “What’s the date?”
The request was rapped out—still weak, but the tone more like that of the Manachan Thomas knew. Clearly, that man lay inside somewhere.
“April twentieth,” Edgar promptly supplied.
Manachan’s gaze swung back to Thomas. “The crops should already have been planted, shouldn’t they? Or at least be about to go in?”
Thomas nodded. “But there’s been no seed supplied, at least not to the farmers on the northern farms—and, I suspect, not to any in the clan.”
Still puzzled, Manachan’s gaze turned inward. “There must be some delay…or something.” Refocusing on Thomas, he said, “Ask Nigel—he’ll know.”
“Nigel and Nolan are in Ayr, and have been for the last few days. They were in Glasgow before that—I don’t know for how long.”
That that was news to Manachan was clear. His frown returned, darker and more definite.
“And now,” Thomas said, freeing his hand from Manachan’s and rising, “the Bradshaws have fallen ill. Seriously ill. The whole family.”
“What?” Manachan stared at Thomas, then glanced questioningly—almost accusingly—at Edgar.
Edgar folded his hands and piously intoned, “We were ordered not to bother you with any disturbing news.”
“The devil you were.” Manachan’s tone boded ill for whoever had given that order. He didn’t say anything for several moments, then he looked at Thomas. “Where are you going?”
“To the Bradshaws’ farm.”
“Good. Go and find out what the deuce is going on. Take Joy, our healer, with you.”
“She’s already there—the Forresters sent for her and she went last night.”
“At least someone’s thinking,” Manachan muttered. After a moment, he looked up at Thomas from under his shaggy brows. “Go and be my eyes and ears, boy. See what you can learn—not just about what’s stricken the Bradshaws, but about this business of the seed supply. As Nigel’s not here to ask, he can’t be surprised if we ask others for information.”
Thomas nodded, but the comment disturbed him, suggesting as it did that, even in Manachan’s mind, all responsibility for the estate now rested with Nigel. It was one thing for Nigel to be acting in Manachan’s stead, but Thomas hadn’t imagined that Manachan had abdicated his role so completely, to the extent of thinking to be careful about stepping on Nigel’s toes.
Then again, Thomas hadn’t known how weak Manachan had grown. Perhaps the change had been necessary.
Regardless… He stepped back from the bed. “I’ll come and report when I get back.”
He waited for Manachan’s nod, then turned and strode for the door. Closing it quietly behind him, he paused, puzzled by the changes and wondering again just what was going on, then he shook aside the distraction and went down the stairs.
After collecting his greatcoat from Ferguson, who confirmed that they still hadn’t located Faith Burns, Thomas strode out of the house and back into the stable yard.
Mitch had Phantom waiting in the aisle of the stable. “Thought he may as well stand in the warm.”
Thomas smiled his thanks.
As he mounted, Mitch added, “Sean’s off to the Watts to see if they know anything of Faith. Odd, that—she’s no giddy girl to go waltzing off anywhere, and, really, whereabouts around here is there anywhere to go?”
Thomas grimaced and nodded; it was a pertinent point. But how did a maid simply disappear? “If anyone needs to know, I’m off to the Bradshaws—with the laird’s blessing.”
Mitch nodded. “Good thing, too. Hope Joy’s got them well again. We’ll be waiting to hear.”
Thomas walked Phantom out into the yard. The sun had dipped behind the Rhinns of Kells, and the light was already waning. “I doubt I’ll be back before full dark.”
“Aye, but we’ll keep an eye out, any case.”
Thomas tipped his head, then tapped his heels to Phantom’s sleek sides. The big gray shifted smoothly into a trot, then into a canter. Once out of the stable yard, Thomas turned the gelding to the north and eased the reins.
* * *
The Bradshaws’ farmhouse lay along the northern boundaries of the Carrick estate, where the country was less hilly and the fields more open. As he rode in that direction, Thomas noted that many fields lay fallow; some were partially tilled, but none bore the neater regimentation of planted rows. The estate primarily ran sheep, with a small herd of cattle and two small goat herds; only a handful of farmers had fields useful for grain, most of which went to supplying the clan’s needs through the rest of the year.
With the fields not yet planted, the concern of the farmers over not having a sufficient crop—of having only a single crop that year instead of their usual two—appeared, to Thomas, to be justified; as far as he recalled, year to year, the clan used most of the grain produced on the estate.
The shadows were lengthening when he rode up the slight rise to the front of the Bradshaws’ long stone farmhouse. As the temperature had also started to fall, he was surprised to see the front door left ajar.
A glance confirmed that no hint of smoke was wafting from the chimneys—which seemed decidedly odd. It was late April, and while winter had lost its grip, warmer days, let alone evenings, were some way off.
He dismounted and tied Phantom’s reins to one of the rings set in a post to one side of the door, then walked to the doorway and looked in. The light from the open door reached only so far, and the windows were fully curtained and no lamp had been lit; he couldn’t see deeper into the shadows wreathing the long room, but regardless, he saw no one, and no one stirred. He couldn’t hear anyone, either; silence, undisturbed, enveloped the house.
He raised a hand and rapped on the wooden door frame. “Hello? Bradshaw?”
The eerie silence stretched, but then a creak followed by a weak shout came from deeper in the house.
Thomas stepped across the threshold. Leaving the door open, he strode through the main room, beneath an archway, and into a long corridor; the shout had come from that direction.
The first door he came to stood ajar. He pushed it open and found himself looking into the Bradshaws’ bedroom. Mrs. Bradshaw lay curled and slumped in an armchair by the cold fireplace. She looked dreadful, her face a ghastly hue, her graying hair bedraggled and coming loose. She was fully dressed but didn’t stir at Thomas’s arrival; she was breathing through her mouth, and her breath came in shallow, barely there pants. A pool of half-dried vomit lay beside the armchair.
Thomas’s gaze shifted to the bed. Bradshaw had fallen across it. He was also fully dressed but, like his wife, had curled up and looked haggard and drained. He, too, had emptied his stomach, apparently violently, beside the bed, and his skin was the same ghastly shade as his wife’s.
Unlike her, Bradshaw was awake, but only just; as Thomas looked his way, Bradshaw tried to raise a hand in greeting—in supplication—but couldn’t.
The action—and the helpless plea in the man’s wretched gaze—sank talons into Thomas’s soul. “Wait.” Rapidly defining what he most needed to know, he asked, “Where’s the healer? Did she reach here?”
Bradshaw managed a fractional nod.
Thomas frowned and glanced down the corridor. About to search further, he glanced back to see Bradshaw moisten his cracked lips.
“She came…last night.” The words were a bare thread of sound. “Forresters were here…got her here.”
Abandoning the doorway, Thomas strode to the bed. He swiftly surveyed the nightstand, the dresser, but there was no water he could offer Bradshaw. Leaning closer, ignoring the stench, he concentrated on Bradshaw’s lips.
Bradshaw seemed relieved he was nearer. He summoned the effort and croaked, “Joy came and saw us, then she looked in on the bairns. She put her head in to say…that she was going to make us something…heard her go to the kitchen…talk to Forrester.” Bradshaw closed his eyes. His lips, his features tightened. A soft moan escaped him as pain seemed to wrack his entire body.
Helpless, Thomas watched.
As the spasm eased, Bradshaw drew in a shuddering breath and whispered, “Joy never came back.”
Thomas was no healer; he had only instinct to guide him. Placing a hand on Bradshaw’s meaty shoulder, Thomas gripped. “Rest. I’ll get help.” As he straightened, he murmured, “Hold on.”
“The bairns…” Bradshaw moaned.
“I’ll check on them.” Thomas turned and went to do so, not knowing what he might find.
To his relief, while all five children were in similar straits to their parents, they were all alive.
All showed signs of having been subject to violent, stomach-cramping pain; all five children lay listless, close to comatose, in their beds. Like their parents, all were dressed.
The Forresters had found the family ill and had sent for the healer. Thomas couldn’t imagine the Forresters leaving their kin—not unless the healer had arrived and reassured them. Joy Burns must have believed she was capable of caring for the Bradshaws and making them well again. So she had arrived late last night, checked over the Bradshaws, understood what ailed them, and sent the Forresters home. All that had to have happened during the night.
And Bradshaw hadn’t seen or heard from Joy since.
It was now late the following day—nearly night again.
So where was Joy?
Leaving the room that was occupied by Bradshaw’s two sons, Thomas paused in the doorway to Bradshaw’s room to say, “I’m going to find Joy and sort out what’s going on. I’ll bring help as soon as I can.”
Bradshaw managed an infinitesimal nod and closed his eyes again.
Thomas went back into the farmhouse’s large main room—sitting room, dining room, and kitchen all in one, although the kitchen was partially walled off from the dining room. Through an archway, the huge fireplace used for cooking that filled the center of the far wall of the kitchen was visible, but there was no sign of any fire in that hearth, or in the nearer fireplace in the sitting area. There had been a fire burning there, but it had burned to cold ashes.
A glance out of the open door confirmed dusk was steadily falling. No point opening the curtains. His eyes now adjusted to the dimness within, Thomas looked around and spotted a lamp sitting on the dining table. Skirting the sofa and armchairs, he walked to the table, picked up the lamp—and realized it was empty. By the look of the wick, the lamp had burned until it ran out of fuel.
Setting the lamp back down, Thomas walked into the kitchen. There had to be matches and surely another lamp.
Joy Burns lay curled on the stone floor.
She looked even worse than her patients.
Thomas swore. For a moment, he simply couldn’t think, then his brain started working again. Stepping around Joy, he crouched by her side. “Joy?”
He lifted one of her hands. It was limp, without life.
He touched her face; her skin was deathly cold. He patted her cheek lightly, then more firmly, but her lashes didn’t flicker. Her features didn’t shift.
She was breathing, but so shallowly he could barely detect it. He couldn’t see any signs that she’d emptied her stomach, but the way she lay—arms and legs curled tight, her skirts tangled beneath her—suggested she’d been in extreme pain. He searched for a pulse at her throat; all he found was a thready tremor.
The Bradshaws might be sleeping the sleep of the exhausted, but he’d known none of them, even the children, had been unconscious.
The situation was bizarre.
Also beyond serious. Eight lives—seven Bradshaws plus Joy—hung in the balance, and of them all, Joy seemed to have the most tenuous hold on life.
Thomas had no ability to help any of them—not directly.
Cursing softly, he levered his hands under Joy, praying that, unconscious as she was, he wasn’t causing her more pain. Straightening, he lifted her. She was a tallish, well-built woman, now a dead weight, but he managed to angle her through the kitchen archway and around the dining table.
Gently, he laid her on the worn sofa before the cold hearth.
Stepping back, he glanced at the grate, debated whether spending the time to get a fire going would be well spent—decided against it.
His clansmen desperately needed help, and given their healer was among those struck down, he knew of only one place he could get that vital help from.
* * *
He rode hell for leather for the Vale, striking east to join the road near the village of Carsphairn, then thundering south before veering down the long drive that led to Casphairn Manor.
It had been over ten years since he’d last ridden that way. Then, he’d trotted slowly, balancing two squirming deerhound puppies across his saddle. He’d given the pups—Artemis and Apollo—to Lucilla and her twin brother Marcus. As the manor rose before him, he wondered if the dogs still lived.
Pulling up immediately before the front steps, he swung out of the saddle. He released Phantom’s reins, knowing the horse wouldn’t stray, then climbed the steps and grasped the iron chain that connected with a bell somewhere inside; he tugged the chain and heard a distant clang.
In less than a minute, footsteps approached, a measured tread, then the door opened, revealing the butler—the same one Thomas remembered from his last visit.
The butler looked at Thomas and, somewhat to his surprise, smiled in recognition. “Mr. Carrick, isn’t it?”
Unable to keep the grimness from his features, Thomas nodded. “I—my clan—need help. I’ve just come from the Bradshaws’ farmhouse to the north. The entire family—Bradshaw, his wife, and their five children—are all gravely ill and in pain.” Thomas had to pause to haul in a breath against the constriction banding his chest. “And our healer is there, too, but I think she’s dying. She’s unconscious, and I couldn’t revive her.”
“Good gracious!” The butler was as shocked and as concerned as Thomas could have wished. “You’ll need Miss Lucilla then.”
Thomas managed not to frown. “I was hoping Algaria might come—or, if not her, then Lady Cynster.”
The butler’s expression grew commiserating. “I’m afraid, sir, that Algaria passed on several years ago, and Lady Cynster is holidaying with Lord Richard on the Continent. It’s Miss Lucilla who is—so to speak—holding the fort, healer-wise. But I’m sure she’ll aid you—of course, she will.”
Thomas knew she would, but… Jaw setting, he forced himself to nod. Clan trumped personal considerations. “Very well. If I could speak with her?”
“Ah.” The butler grimaced. “She’s at the grove at the moment, but she should return very soon.”
Having swallowed the necessity of having to appeal to Lucilla herself—of having to meet with her, look into her eyes, and hear her voice again—Thomas wasn’t inclined to further delay. “The grove?”
“The sacred grove.” The butler waved to the north. “Where she prays to the Lady. Mr. Marcus is with her.”
Looking in the direction the butler had indicated—on the way back to Carrick lands as the crows flew—Thomas narrowed his eyes. “Where exactly is this grove?”
Lucilla had finished her devotions.
The ancient trees of the grove—a dense mix of beech, spruce, fir, and birch—ringed the small clearing, enclosing her in a living shell of shifting green. Branches extended overhead, tips entwining to create an arched ceiling, cocooning all within from the wind—in effect, from the world.
Opening her eyes, she softly exhaled. Part prayer, part meditation, part simply communing with the land around her—and with the deity that claimed it as Her own—the quiet moments, as always, left her feeling anchored, more assured. More connected with the flow of life and with her own destiny, her own thread among the myriad strands.
Moving slowly, ceremonially, she rocked back from the rectangular stone of the rustic altar before which she’d been kneeling; originally rough-hewn, but now worn smooth by the centuries, the unadorned rock was more symbol and practical support than anything else.
She rose, feeling the skirts of her riding habit shift about her legs, and paused. Fingertips lightly brushing the smooth stone, for just one moment more she resisted the tug of the world beyond the grove; she knew what frustration awaited her there, yet it wasn’t something she could avoid.
Avoiding life wasn’t in her lexicon, much less in her stars.
Surrendering to the inevitable, she relaxed the meditative leash she’d imposed on her mind and allowed it to return—not to her duties in the Vale, to the role she filled, the tasks she confidently and capably performed, but to its abiding obsession. To brooding over her preordained fate, and when said fate would come to claim her.
She’d been waiting for the past ten years.
Along with her cousin Prudence and their best friend, Antonia Rawlings, she’d been presented to the ton nine years ago. As she’d fully expected, not one gentleman, eligible or otherwise, had caught her eye. But then she’d already known that her future did not lie south of the border but here, on the Lady’s lands.
The man she was fated to marry was here, too—occasionally. She’d assumed that, over time, he would find his way to her side. Over the past decade, they’d met several times, and every time the connection—real, intense, and undeniable—had flared, growing stronger, more compelling, with each repeated exposure. And he knew it; he was as susceptible to that irresistible force, as governed by it, as she.
She’d schooled herself to patience, even though patience was not one of her primary virtues.
Impatience was dangerous; it fed a reckless, willful part of her she had long ago learned to keep restrained.
She’d continued to wait.
Recently, she’d started wondering if waiting was her correct path—or whether, perhaps, she was supposed to act, to do something to initiate their inevitable union. While acting would certainly suit her temperament significantly more than passively waiting, every time she asked the question of the universe—of the Lady—the answer came back a resounding “no.”
Wait. She was supposed to wait for him to come to her.
If he didn’t hurry up, she would be in no good mood when he eventually got around to approaching her.
They’d last met at the Hunt Ball two years ago. They had chatted and shared a waltz—and her heart had soared. That waltz. Those ineluctable moments and their implication had been impossible to mistake, to misconstrue. To ignore.
After that night, she’d expected him to call any day. For the next month, she’d lived in a state of giddy anticipation.
But he hadn’t come.
More, he hadn’t set foot on the Lady’s lands since.
A sound reached her—the shifting of a stone on the path leading into the grove.
Her senses immediately focused. Even while her mind was telling her it was doubtless some animal or bird, her senses reached, found—and knew.
Slowly, she turned.
As if her thoughts had finally conjured him, he was standing ten feet away, where the crooked path leading to the grove opened into the clearing. Tradition held that only the Lady’s representatives and their consorts could enter Her grove—yet, as he was to be her consort…
He looked…even more elementally hers than she recalled. An even more perfect construct of her desire. Dark hair, a brown so dark it appeared black in most lights, fell in fashionably cut waves about his well-shaped head. Arched dark brows framed eyes of a curious and compelling shade of golden amber, a complex, mesmerizing blend of pale hazel and gold. Sharp cheekbones rode above aesthetically austere cheeks, complementing a squared chin and finely drawn, mobile lips.
She hadn’t forgotten his height—significantly greater than her own—or his physique, a riveting combination of muscles stretched over long, heavy bones; she had no difficulty imagining that his physical form had been created by the hand of some god in that god’s own image.
He was a strikingly handsome man, but what most commanded the attention of any female was the ineffable aura of power that clung to him. That pervaded the very atmosphere around him.
She was no less susceptible than any other woman—but she had power of her own.
Noting that he was, somewhat curiously, dressed in clothes more appropriate for town, with a greatcoat thrown over all, she clasped her hands, drew in a breath, raised her chin high, and looked him in the eye. “Thomas Carrick.”
She said nothing more. What more was there to say? She wasn’t about to fall into the same trap she had two years ago and assume his presence meant anything at all.
Thomas held Lucilla’s emerald gaze. This was why he’d been avoiding her—that look, that unvoiced challenge.
It was as if she, the female she was, had some direct link to all that was male in him—she only had to meet his eyes, and he felt as if she’d sunk talons into his psyche and tugged.
She possessed—no, she embodied—a certain haughtiness, a highhandedness, an imperious feminine confidence that fascinated and drew him.
It wasn’t anything so mundane as attraction. This struck much deeper, more forcefully, more enthrallingly.
And that was on top of all the rest—all that made up her undeniable allure.
Her head didn’t even reach his shoulder; she was petite, delicate, yet well rounded and womanly. Richly red, her fabulous hair was today caught in a knot at the back of her head, leaving soft, puffed waves framing her heart-shaped face. A redhead’s alabaster complexion was the perfect canvas for her startling eyes—brighter, more intense, than the green of the forests—and her lush rose-tinted lips, crafted by some angel’s hand.
For a long moment, he simply looked at her—met that green gaze, felt the connection, visceral and so real—then he forced air into his lungs and tipped his head. “Miss Cynster.”
At the formality, one of her brown brows arched.
He seized the moment. “I arrived at Carrick Manor in response to a summons, and subsequently rode out to the Bradshaws’ farm—it’s on the northern edge of the estate.”
Faint puzzlement blooming in her eyes, she nodded. “I know it, but not well. I’ve met the Bradshaws.”
That made things easier. “They’re ill—very ill. Whatever struck them down happened, I think, the night before last. Others found them yesterday and sent for the clan’s healer. As far as I can make out, the healer arrived late last night, and the others left the Bradshaws in her care.” He paused, then simply said, “I arrived at the farmhouse less than an hour ago. I think the healer—Joy Burns—must have had some sort of seizure. I think she’s dying—she’s certainly very low. I don’t think she had time to treat the Bradshaws at all—they’re still very ill.”
Lucilla blinked. “But they’re alive?”
Lips tightening, he nodded. “For the moment.”
“I’ll come.” The words were past Lucilla’s lips before she’d thought—not that she had to think, not in this. A summons such as Thomas had brought was her reason for being—at least for being the Lady’s representative in those lands.
He eased out a breath. “Thank you. The clan doesn’t have another healer, at least not that I know of.”
She shook her head. “No.” She looked around for her gloves, spotted them on a mossy rock by the altar. Bending, she picked them up. “Joy was training a younger woman, but I spoke with Joy a few months ago, and she said…Alice, I think the name was, wasn’t yet up to taking on the role in any independent way.”
Pulling on her gloves, she walked toward Thomas, but her mind was already ranging ahead. “Joy would have taken all she needed, and I carry the essentials wherever I go, so there’s no reason I need to go back to the manor and fetch anything…” She halted beside Thomas and, surprised, reached with her senses…
Abruptly, she looked at him. “What did you do to Marcus?”
Thomas grimaced and gripped her elbow.
She struggled to suppress her reaction to his touch. Even muted by the velvet of her riding jacket, it scorched.
But her twin…was where she’d left him at the entrance to the path, but he wasn’t…aware. He wasn’t thinking.
Thomas turned as if to follow the path out of the grove, but she stood her ground. And waited.
She’d grown very good at waiting, thanks to him.
His lips tightened, but—wisely—he didn’t attempt to physically urge her on. “My clansmen need your help urgently. Cynster—your brother—would have argued. Persuading him to let you ride north with me, even if he came, too, would have taken time.” He met her eyes. “Time Joy Burns and the Bradshaws may well not have.”
She held his gaze. “So…?”
“I tapped him on the head. Not too hard, but he’s unconscious.”
She drew in a long breath, searched his eyes, then shook her head, twisted her elbow free of his hold, and started walking. “You do realize he’s never going to forgive you for that?” And as Marcus would be his brother-in-law eventually, “never” was going to be a very long time.
Falling in beside her, Thomas shrugged. “If it means I get you to the Bradshaws in time to save them, I’ll live with his animosity.”
The images—of Joy Burns lying on the kitchen floor, as still and as cold as death, and even more those of the Bradshaw children, wracked and weak in their beds—had filled his mind as he’d ridden away from Casphairn Manor. Realizing that Marcus, being with his sister, would almost certainly be standing guard—almost certainly looking out over the Vale—Thomas had foreseen the inevitable argument and delay, and had acted to avoid both.
He’d circled and reached the grove from higher ground. He’d left Phantom a short distance from where he’d spotted Marcus’s and Lucilla’s mounts, then quickly, but with a woodman’s caution, he’d made his way to where he’d guessed the grove had to be.
Not far from the entrance to the path into the grove, Marcus had been sitting on a rock, looking out over the Vale; he’d been so deep in his own thoughts that Thomas had had no difficulty coming up behind him without Marcus realizing.
One swift blow was all it had taken. He’d caught Marcus before he’d toppled and laid him carefully on the ground.
Marcus was still there, exactly as Thomas had left him, when, beside Lucilla, Thomas stepped clear of the enclosed path.
Lucilla halted and looked down at her twin, then she crouched and touched his cheek, his neck. Apparently satisfied, she reached into Marcus’s jacket pocket, rummaged, and drew out a small notebook and pencil. She opened the notebook, flicked to a blank page, and started writing.
Thomas shifted, impatient to get on. The sense of urgency that had sent him racing to the Vale was escalating with every passing minute.
“Trust me.” Lucilla’s words were clipped. “Neither you nor I want to leave him without an explanation.”
Recalling the level—warning—look he’d received from Marcus the last time their paths had crossed—at the Hunt Ball—Thomas had to accept that she knew of what she spoke. Cynsters were not known for being understanding over territorial incursions, and knocking Marcus out and whisking his twin sister away was not going to endear him to Marcus.
Thomas frowned. “Your parents are away, so he’s running the Vale.”
Lucilla nodded. She glanced at the sky, which remained clear, then tucked the open notebook into her twin’s hand. Then she rose. “As long as he knows—from me—where I’ve gone, he won’t come after me. Not unless I send for him.”
Thomas inwardly admitted that Marcus turning up unannounced was one encounter he was happy to know he wouldn’t have to face. He reached for Lucilla’s arm. “We need to get going.”
Lucilla allowed him to keep a light grip on her arm as they made their way over the rough terrain to where she’d left her horse. A flighty but very fast black, the mare pricked up her ears as they approached. Lucilla untied her reins. “What’s the fastest route from here?”
She asked the question to distract him—and herself—as she drew the mare around. She would have to allow him to lift her to her side-saddle; there was no other option.
Steeling herself against his touch, she stood beside the mare and waited.
Somewhat to her surprise, Thomas’s lips set, and he looked almost grim—almost as steeled against the moment as she. “North,” he replied, then he closed his hands about her waist and hoisted her up.
He released her the instant she was stable, but the few seconds of contact, the sensation of being entirely within his control, had been every bit as riveting, as senses-stealing, as she’d expected.
As exhilarating, as transfixing.
Ostensibly busying herself settling her boots in her stirrups, from beneath lowered lashes, she watched him stride to a big gray that had been cropping the sparse grass a short distance away. She watched him grab the gray’s reins, then swing effortlessly up to the saddle, the movement drenched with male power and grace, and a certain sense of reined aggression.
Realizing that she’d stopped breathing—that the moment had only set an edge to the need that, with him close once again, was rising within her—she drew in a tight breath, raised her head, lifted her reins, tapped her heel to the mare’s side, and trotted forward to join him.
This might not be anything like the reunion she’d hoped for, but in the circumstances, she would take whatever situation the Lady handed her. And once she’d done her duty for those the Lady held within her care, she would turn the opportunity to her own purpose—to fulfilling her own very real need.
Thomas was waiting, every bit as impatient as she. Without further words, they set out, riding as fast as safety allowed for the Bradshaws’ farm.
TO PRE-ORDER E-BOOK or PRINT or AUDIO, click HERE