Highlander’s Sinister Deception (Preview)
Ethan sat with his head down, not paying attention as his fellow crofters filed in to pay their last respects to his mother. His vision was blurry with tears, and he did not want anyone to see them. His hands twisted in his lap as he contemplated the fact that he was completely alone now. His mother had been his only kin.
At least the only kin who acknowledged him.
“Did the laird stop by yet?” Master Iain McNeil leaned in to murmur in his ear. He was the local tacksman under whom Ethan and his mother had farmed the land.
Ethan slowly shook his head. He had no interest in the laird or whether he would attend his mother’s wake or not. As far as he was concerned, the laird could go to hell. He had gone to Barclays Alasdair Buchanan when his mother had been sick and pleaded on his knees for help. They barely had money for food; it had been a long winter. Getting the medicine his mother needed for her illness had been impossible without help. The other crofters did what they could, but everybody was struggling.
His mother had died slowly and painfully, and the laird had turned his back on them. He wondered briefly if Buchanan would throw him out of his cottage too. He was but a fifteen-year-old lad, alone, and incapable of bringing in much grain on his own. Ethan had no doubt that there were other crofters out there looking for a home who could provide better labor than he could.
What did it matter if the laird was also his sire? Unacknowledged by-blows meant less than nothing. Ethan figured that this was the perfect excuse for the laird to get rid of him. Technically, it was up to Master McNeil whether he went or stayed, but Ethan was sure that the laird would not want his lady asking too many awkward questions if Ethan was allowed to stay – to say nothing of his good-for-nothing legitimate son Lachie.
The bile rose in his throat as he contemplated homelessness. Mrs. Campbell got to her knees opposite him, made the sign of the cross, closed her eyes, and bent her head. She had offered him a home, should he need one, and he appreciated it. However, if the laird threw him out, Ethan would not stay on his land. He had resolved to go down to Edinburgh and catch a ship to the New World. He had no money, but he could sign on as a ship’s mate. He only had his two hands, but he knew how to work and was motivated to move as far away as possible.
Mrs. Campbell finished her prayers and then reached over and patted him on the shoulder. “God bless ye, lad. It’ll be alright. Dinna ye fash.”
Ethan nodded in acknowledgment, swallowing the lump in his throat. It would never be alright again, but he could pretend along with the rest of them. They were just trying to help, after all.
Master McNeill whispered to his lad, and the boy went out and came back with an anker of whiskey. Someone put a glass of the stuff in his hands, and he gulped it down without tasting it. If ever there was a reason to get drunk, this was it.
“Surely ye’ll throw the lad out now, Faither, will ye no?” Lachie asked, watching his father pace back and forth.
“He hasna anywhere tae gae.” Barclays’ eyes dipped, his hands clasped behind his head as he thought about how to proceed. The boy was his very own flesh and blood, and he was not so heartless that he would throw Ethan out on the street. His presence here, however, was an uncomfortable reminder of past indiscretions. If lady Buchanan ever found out, there would be hell to pay.
Fortunately, she took no notice of the crofters beyond spending the rent money collected from them. He sighed, thinking about his rapidly depleting coffers as she attended the Season in London. There was no reason for her to go, but she said that she was on the lookout for a suitable bride for their son – even though it would be at least another five years before he was ready to get leg-shackled. It was ridiculous, but Barclay did not complain; he had free time with his mistress while his wife was away. If it weren’t for Lady Buchanan’s profligate spending, he’d be happy as a pig in mud.
He sighed. “We mun show our faces at the wake.”
“Naw!” Lachie got to his feet, his face like thunder, “I willna go anywhere near that fiddle! And neither should ye.”
Laird Buchanan sighed. “He’s my son.”
“He’s yer bastart!”
Barclays whipped around, eyes narrowed, glaring at Lachie. His son dropped his eyes, face flushing, but didn’t say anything. Barclays snatched up his cloak and whirled it over his shoulders. “Ah’m leaving. Ye can suit yerself.”
He strode out, as Lachie watched him go.
Ethan was alerted to the presence of the laird in the room as people called out greetings, got to their feet, and congregated around Laird Buchanan as if he was the second coming. Ethan frowned, his eyes not straying from his mother’s hands, where they had been for most of the evening. They were the only part of her that still looked the same as when she was alive.
He heard a step and did not need to lift his eyes to see his father’s shiny shoes. He frowned, and stiffened, although he still did not look up. A warm hand landed on his shoulder, and it was all he could do not to jerk away from it.
“Ah’m sorry for yer loss, young sir. Yer mither was a guid woman.”
Ethan clenched his jaw, turning his head away from the laird. His ginger hair, too long in the front, fell across his jade-colored eyes, disguising the anger that had set in.
He heard the laird take a deep breath. “I want ye to ken that ye’ve a hame here. Ye’re welcome to stay as long as ye like.”
As long as I like?
Ethan’s brow furrowed at his father’s words. For him to sound as if he was doing Ethan a considerable favor was maddening. He swallowed, hearing the tick in his throat as he opened his mouth, trying to speak.
“T-Thank ye,” he said quietly, amazed at the amount of self-control that stopped him from strangling his father.
The laird patted his shoulder again before moving away. Ethan swallowed and got to his feet, almost tripping on the chair he’d been sitting on. He was tall for his age and gangly with it, and hadn’t yet learned to control his limbs or any part of his body. He shuffled over to the window, keeping his eyes away from his father and tried to steady his breathing.
One day old man, one day, I’ll get you back for everything.
Five Years Later
Ethan was coming from the graveyard on the anniversary of his mother’s death – having gone to bring her flowers – when he heard shouting from the big house. He hesitated, torn between apathy and curiosity.
It might be something I need to ken, he told himself before changing direction and making his way quietly towards the bay windows that lined the back of the house. The voices got louder, the closer he got, and he went on his tiptoes, crouching low down in the flower bed, as he inched along the side of the house.
“It could have happened to anybody Da. I dinna mean for this, ye ken that, no?”
“Intentions dinna mean a thing when ye’ve lost a whole year’s profit on the gaming tables son! What were ye thinking?”
“I wasna…I…I dinna,” Lachie’s voice was higher than usual, seemingly breathless. Ethan couldn’t help smirking.
There was the distinct sound of flesh hitting flesh, and then Lachie whimpered in pain.
“Ye have no idea what ye’ve done,” the laird hissed.
“I’m sorry da-” Lachie’s voice was pleading.
“Ye dinna get tae say ye’re sorry!” Ethan flinched at the sound of more beating, even though he did not feel the slightest bit sorry for his half-brother. The man had made it his mission to make Ethan’s life as difficult as possible. There had been a girl Ethan liked when he was sixteen and just getting over his mother’s death. She lived in the village, and every day, she would come around with baskets of flowers to sell. Ethan would watch for her, his heart pounding with anticipation. She would go around to his house, and even though he could not afford the bawbee for her flowers, he still lay in wait for her, a cup of milk in hand.
“Ye’re voice must be tired from all the shoutin’,” he’d say as he handed it over. She would drink, thanking him with a smile and a single bud, and then she would be gone, and he would wait for her again the next day. The girl had been the one light in his bleak life. He kept all the flowers she gave him in a small jar and watered it religiously.
One day, she hadn’t come around as usual, and that worried Ethan enough to get his threadbare coat and walk to the village square to seek her out. He only knew her first name, Abby, and the fact that she sold flowers. He cursed himself for a fool, having been too tongue-tied when she was near to ask about her life.
He went to the market and began to walk, keeping an eye out for a willowy lass with long wispy auburn hair and the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. He reached the end of the market without seeing her and then turned back and tried again. When he came to a stall that sold flowers, he stopped, examining the old lady hunched over on a stool, half asleep.
“Pardon me, ma’am, may I ask ye, d’ye ken a lassie named Abby what sells flowers to Daltern?”
The woman looked up, blinking at him for a long moment. “Aye.”
Ethan stiffened with excitement, “Ye do? Where is she the noo?”
The woman glanced away and scoffed. Ethan stared intently at her as if he might make her tell him. “She dinna come back yesterday. I sent word tae the housekeeper at the big house. She said she saw Abby there with the laird’s boy.” She swallowed, blinking tears from her eyes. “He took her to his quarters.” Her eyes moved slowly, coming to rest on him in accusation, “Like faither, like son, I suppose.”
If heartbreak had a sound, Ethan would describe it as the impact of a flower shattering on the stony ground like glass as its petals scattered everywhere.
He nodded, feeling helpless, and turned away, walking blindly back to his cottage. Opening his door, he sat on the only bit of furniture in the room – his bed. His fists clenched and unclenched as he tried to muster the urge to charge into the big house and squeeze Lachie Buchanan’s neck until he died.
On top of that, he was worried about Abby. He did not know if she was with his half-brother willingly, or he had coerced her in some way. What he did know for sure was that Lachie had done this out of spite. Somehow, he had divined that Ethan had a soft heart for Abby, and once again, Lachie had taken something from him.
Three months later, Abby had turned up pregnant, Lachie having thrown her aside, having had his fun. Ethan had tried to help her, but the girl wanted nothing to do with anyone from Daltern, especially one who shared Lachie’s blood.
It was a source of great bitterness to him, but there was nothing he could do except watch over his nephew from afar.
Someone hit him over the head as he crouched in the shrubbery, and he jumped, turning to see the housekeeper of the big house glaring down at him.
“Now Ethan, what are ye doing hiding in my vegetable patch?” She glared at him, and he straightened to his feet. He was considerably taller than she was, and yet he cowered before her. He didn’t say anything. After all, it was quite obvious what he was doing.
She turned away, “Follow me.” He took it as the order it was and scampered after her, as she led him to the kitchens where she snatched up a bowl and ladled some soup into it.
“Miss Maisie…” he began.
“Naw, sit doon. Eat.”
He slowly lowered himself into the seat and picked up the spoon, scooping up some soup and swallowing slowly. Maisie McDonald took a seat opposite him.
“Ye want to ken what themselves are arguin’ aboot?”
Ethan shrugged a little sulkily.
Maisie sighed. “Ye’re faither and his son were fighting because the idjit went an’ gambled all the year’s profit and now they’re even deeper in debt. Might stand to lose everythin.”
Ethan looked up, eyes brightening with interest. Maisie smiled. “Ah, that caught yer attention, did it no?”
Ethan looked away, coloring slightly.
“Weel, before ye celebrate, ye should ken they have a way oot.”
Ethan raised his eyes.
“It’s a Sassenach lassie. Daughter of a Duke. She’s disgraced hersel’ and is desperate for a husband.”
Ethan frowned. “She’s pregnant?”
“I dinna ken.”
“So hoot’s the problem?”
“He doesna wish to marry right the noo. ‘e wants to wait until the spring tae gae for his bride.”
“The spring? I thought ye said they were in trouble?”
“Oh, aye. But ye ken how he is.” Maisie shrugged as if that explained Lachie’s shortcomings. To Ethan, it did.
“And so? They will agree to it?”
“Aye,” Maisie’s eyebrows rose, and she smirked.
Ethan got to his feet. “Thank ye for the soup, Maisie.”
No doubt, her tendency to feed him was partially responsible for keeping him alive all this time. Nearly all the grain he managed to grow went for rent, and if he had even one more mouth to feed, he would have died of starvation long ago.
He walked slowly home, deep in thought. He felt sorry for this girl – whoever she was – she had no idea what she was in for.
Georgiana Leighton took the stairs at a dead run, charging into her chambers and slamming the door behind her. She stood with her back against the door, head thrown back and breathing hard. Getting the cut directly was not something she had ever expected to happen to her. Yet here she was.
This isn’t my fault!
The tears rolled down her cheeks at the unfairness of it all as her mind swirled at what had just happened. She had received an invitation to attend Lady Caroline York’s engagement party weeks ago and had been so excited. She and Caroline had come out together the previous year and became quite close. Georgiana could even have ventured to call them friends.
Now, she had not only been banned from the party, but Caroline would not even meet her eyes when Georgiana had pleaded to see her. All because of that…rake, Clarendon Wakefield, Viscount Ashness.
Why won’t anybody listen to me? She thought with despair as hot tears began to sting her cheeks.
It had begun three weeks ago when she attended her cousin’s coming out ball. It was a pleasure to endow Lady Susan Allen with the benefit of her experience as a debutante. She smiled indulgently as her cousin danced with everyone who asked, her dance card just as full. She was still in quite some demand herself, knowing that it was partly because her father was a duke, but also as she was quite confident in her looks and demeanor. The three proposals she had already received also served to boost her confidence.
Foolishly, in hindsight, she had turned them all down – holding out for something intangible she could not even name. And now, because of Viscount Ashness, she was disgraced.
He had filled her dance card twice, and even when they were not dancing together, his eyes were upon her, intent and unwavering. She was flattered by his attention, her heart fluttering with excitement as the other ladies favored her with envious glances and jealous looks. Her cheeks were becomingly flushed as he appeared at supper time to escort her to the dining room.
He sat opposite her, paying proper attention to the Dowager Duchess Lakenfield, who sat on his right, and another debutante whose name Georgiana wasn’t sure of, that sat on his left.
Nevertheless, he continued to cast hot glances at her throughout the meal. It was heady stuff, and she was ready to admit that he’d swept her off her feet without so much as a word.
When he came up to her after dinner, asking if she cared to join him in the card room for a game of whist, she had only hesitated a moment. After all, it might be populated by the chaperones and other older people, but whist was still a perfectly acceptable way to spend the evening.
She allowed him to lead her down the hall, a smile playing on her lips. They passed the portrait gallery, and the viscount stopped.
“I’m always curious about how well portraits stand up to their original subjects. Care to join me on my sojourn?” he asked with a smile as he gestured towards the door.
Georgiana giggled, knowing that what he suggested was not entirely within the bounds of propriety. But it was innocent fun, at least as far as she could tell. So why not?
She nodded, and he smiled so wide that her heart leaped into her throat. Holding his hand out, he bowed chivalrously and covered her hand with his when she looped it through his arm. They walked arm in arm into the portrait gallery. The place was dark; clearly, the hosts had not expected anyone to go in there.
“Oh, just a minute.” Lord Ashness stepped towards the windows and, flinging open the curtains, allowed the full moon to shine brightly into the room. “Ah, that’s better.”
He turned to Georgiana with a smile, and she smiled tentatively back, although she began to worry about them being there, in the dark, alone.
“Uh, perhaps we should return to-”
“No, no, we haven’t even seen the portraits yet,” he protested, interrupting her. Taking her hand, he propelled her forward towards the paintings. Georgiana let him drag her reluctantly along… his hand on the small of her back. She stiffened, wanting to move away but not quite sure how to do that.
He came to a stop in front of a portrait of Lady Susan’s grandmother and stared up at it.
“The resemblance is uncanny; don’t you think?”
“Resemblance?” she asked nervously, most of her attention on the hand slowly creeping up her back.
“Yes, between Lady Susan and her grandmother.”
“Uh, yes, yes. She does take after Lady Diana.” Georgiana giggled nervously and tried to move away from him.
His hand tightened on her arm, and he pulled her close, turning to face her. “I must confess that I have been imagining being alone with you all evening.” He reached out and ran a hand along her collar bone, “So beautiful…” he murmured, “your creamy skin shines in the moonlight, and those eyes of yours…mmm. I could drown in them. I’ve been watching them all night, and they seem to change with the lighting and your mood. Sometimes they’re closer to azure blue … other times, they flicker so close to black. But now, when you’re wide-eyed and afraid, they are as bright as silver.”
Georgiana gasped as he held her even closer to him, and when Lord Galford and His Grace, the Duke of York – her uncle – stumbled into the room accompanied by two servants, he dared to bend and kiss her. The two men stopped short when they caught sight of Georgiana and Clarendon in their guilty embrace by the painting of His Grace’s mother.
Georgiana pulled away and opened her mouth to say…something, anything, she had no idea what and jumped when the viscount whipped around, ran to the large bay windows, opened one, and slipped through it, disappearing into the night. She gawped, unable to comprehend what had happened.
“Lady Georgiana Bellingwick?” Lord Galford shouted rather sternly.
Georgiana simply stood there, breathing rapidly, her chest rising and falling as her vision blurred, she saw spots in front of her eyes, and she prayed with every fiber of her being that she would faint.
Her uncle stepped forward, and she caught a glimpse of the disappointment in his eyes before everything went black.
When she woke, she was in bed, and her mother was sitting beside her. She shot up to a sitting position. “Mama?” she whispered as the events of the night came flooding back.
“Don’t speak,” her mother replied, not looking at her. “Just…don’t.”
Georgiana lay there, her bottom lip trembling…trying to find the words to defend herself.
“You played right into his hands.” Her mother’s voice was harsh and startled her.
“Lord Ashness. He’s been looking for revenge on your father for buying the Ashness estate. As if your father was responsible for his father’s debts. It’s ridiculous.”
“W-what?” Georgiana’s heart sank.
At last, her mother looked her in the eye. “He’s ruined you. Your reputation is soiled. Lord Galford saw you…even the servants, and you know how they talk,” she shook her head, “It’s bad, Georgie.”
She put her hand on her heart as if that would slow down it’s pounding. “What will we do?” she whispered.
Her mother sighed. “We shall go on as usual and hope that this all blows over. You will act no differently. Just carry on as you have been.”
Georgina had no idea what the gossips were saying, but she was willing to wager that she was the subject. Word seemed to spread quickly, and now she was officially ostracized – no more invitations to events and probably no more proposals. She was doomed to die an old maid.
For a moment, she wanted to grab her shawl, run off, and disappear. If she had any clue where she could go, she would have been on her way by now. It was hopeless, and she fell face-first onto the bed and bawled herself to sleep.
Three weeks later, her mother walked into her room with the first smile Georgiana had seen since this farce began. The girl had confined herself to her room, dressed for mourning.
“I have some good news,” her mother came to sit beside her on the window seat.
“Yes, mother?” Georgiana could barely lookup.
“We have received an offer for your hand.” Georgiana could hear the excitement in her mother’s voice, which contrasted sharply with the sinking feeling in her belly. How desperate must this person be to offer her marriage?
“W-who is it?”
Georgiana was ready to bet it was some old man, unable to father heirs of his own and hoping that Georgiana was with child.
“He’s a Scottish lord. His name is lord Lachie Alasdair Buchanan, and he is the son of an old acquaintance of your father – they fought in the wars together – lord Barclay Alasdair Buchanan. I am acquainted with his wife; she comes down for the season. They are a good family.”
“I-I see. And he’s…uh, he’s a young man?”
“Yes, dear. He’s four and twenty as I understand it.”
“A-and he kn-nows about…?”
Her mother sighed. “Yes, he knows. There is no way we could have hidden it from him. I am sorry, Georgie.”
Georgiana shook her head, wiping a tear from her cheek. “Don’t be sorry. I did this to myself. If he is willing to…”
“Yes, he is.”
Georgiana closed her eyes and bit her lip, trying her best not to ask the question, but it came out anyway. “Why?”
“Well, …let’s just say that marrying the daughter of a duke is not a feat that many Scotsmen can accomplish with ease.”
“Ah, so he is after my bloodline.”
Her mother shrugged. “I suppose he is.”
“And probably my dowry.”
“That certainly helps.”
Georgiana sighed. “And you want this? You want me to go ahead with this marriage?”
Her mother looked away, covering her mouth with her hand. There was a pregnant pause. “I-” she heard the click in her mother’s voice, loud and clear, and watched the duchess blink rapidly, her eyes reddening. “I wanted you to…marry whomever you pleased.” She choked, looking away. Hot tears poured down Georgiana’s face, and she didn’t know if she was crying, for her mother or herself. “But that is not to be. So at least this is a gentleman, a young man from a good family. We have heard no disturbing news of him. If you try, I think you could be happy with him.”
Georgiana nodded. “Yes, I suppose I could.”
“So, you will do this?”
Georgiana closed her eyes and took a deep breath, knowing full well that there was only one answer to that question. “Of course, mother.”
Getting engaged to a Scotsman was not the complete saving grace she had hoped it would be. Many still looked askance at her, but she was at least able to re-enter society. Plans for the wedding went full speed ahead.
“Will I be able to meet him before the big day?” Georgiana wanted to know.
“Well, his mother’s letters state that he is preparing to come, but he has to take care of the new harvest first. So at least we know that he works hard. Is that not good?”
Georgiana nodded reluctantly. “I suppose so…” she bit her lip worriedly. “Mother, I know nothing about living on a farm. Does he know that?”
The duchess smiled reassuringly. “I’m sure he does not expect you to work on the farm. He knows you’re a lady.” Her mother reached out and squeezed Georgiana’s hand, but somehow, she wasn’t comforted. “It’ll be alright.”
She did not know if her mother was trying to reassure Georgiana or herself.
She was walking to get some ice from the Pot and Pineapple with her abigail, Misty. It was a lonely life with no one of her caliber to speak to. Misty loved to chatter, and she would go on and on if Georgiana let her, but it gave her a headache, and she’d specifically asked her to keep the chatter to a minimum, so she could think.
She was about to get married to a man she did not know, had never met. She knew nothing about him, how he looked, his likes or dislikes, whether he had any disfiguring features, or was cruel and violent. Yet she was expected to join her life to his and live with him in the most intimate manner. Her hands had barely stopped shaking since she’d become engaged.
Her mother said that her new family had sent a family heirloom, an emerald ring for her to wear. The ring arrived with no note or letter from her betrothed. It seemed strange to her that he would not send so much as an introductory letter. She asked her mother if she could write to him, but the duchess was not sure it was a good idea and might appear too eager.
Georgiana could not believe what her life had become.
“Georgie!” she turned around to see Lady Susan gazing awkwardly at her from inside the drapes. Georgiana was just about to enter the shop in search of bolts of fabric for her trousseau and stopped, stiffening slightly. “Lady Susan. What a surprise.”
Her cousin had the grace to blush. “I…admit, it’s a bit early for shopping, but I wanted to find something for your wedding.”
“Is that so? I wasn’t aware that you had replied.”
“My mother did. We are all terribly excited for you.”
Georgiana inclined her head. “Oh, you are?”
“Y-yes.” Susan grasped her friend’s hand. “I’m so sorry about what happened. I feel a little guilty because it all happened at my party. You must know that I would not have turned my back on you if I had a choice.”
Her eyes were wide and pleading, blinking up at Georgiana as if she might cry if her friend did not forgive her.
“It’s quite alright, Susan. I understand.”
Georgiana nodded, summoning the parody of a smile from somewhere to reassure Susan that she was serious. She could well understand the pressure to conform to whatever society dictated. She didn’t blame her poor cousin, who had just come out, for turning her back like the rest of the town, and appreciated the fact that Susan took the time to apologize.
She reached out and squeezed her cousin’s hand. “Thank you, Susan. Now I will let you get back to your shopping. Which seamstress are you using?”
“Mrs. Charleston, of course. You know she makes all my gowns. Will she make your trousseau as well?”
Georgiana inclined her head. “I suppose so. I thought to give Misty here some practice as well.”
Susan’s brow furrowed. “Oh? Why is that?”
“Well, I do expect that I shall be grateful that my abigail is an accomplished seamstress, seeing as I shall be moving soon to Scotland.”
If you liked the preview, you can get the whole book here