“I do not understand why you are taking us into barbarian country,” Juliana Caldwell complained as their carriage hit a rut in the road and rocked precariously. “We could very well get killed,” her sister Lorelei agreed, grabbing a side strap to keep from slipping off the seat. Emily, Countess Woodhaven, shook her head at her younger siblings. “Scots do not go around murdering innocent women.” “No?” Lorelei sniffed. “I heard they are lawless cattle thieves.” “And I heard they steal women and force them to marry,” Juliana added. Emily put her fingers to her temple and rubbed, hoping to forestay a headache that was already forming. They had been on the road from London for six days and her sisters’ admonishments had grown more stark with each passing day. At first, they had been upset about leaving London and not retreating to a country estate—not that they had a country estate any longer—but as they’d traveled north, their agitation had grown more dire. Yesterday, they had passed over the border at Gretna Green and the landscape had become rockier as they traveled toward Stirling. Looking out the windows at the increasingly barren terrain had sparked another deluge of anticipated horrors. She certainly wasn’t going to admit that she also felt a bit of trepidation. “Would you rather have been taken into the convent?” she asked. That quieted both of them, and she felt a bit guilty over using the threat.
But it was true. They had no other place to go. Albert Prescott, the Earl of Woodhaven—her recently deceased husband—had had a penchant for gambling and opium that had left her with a mountain of debt after his death. Creditors had circled like sharks scenting blood—not to mention a mistress the old lecher had apparently had for years—all wanting money. She’d sold the house in Mayfair to pay off the debts, but not the mistress. The country estate was entailed, and a cousin who had claimed the title didn’t feel charitable about housing a widow and two young, attractive women. Or maybe it had been his wife, the new countess, who didn’t. Either way, they no longer had a home. “We are sorry,” Lorelei said, her voice subdued. “You are doing what you think best for us.
” Juliana nodded. “We would truly die if we had to live in a convent.” “Or take the veil.” Lorelei shuddered. Emily had to smile at the idea of either of them retreating into silence and prayer. At seventeen, Lorelei was vivacious and a natural flirt. Juliana, a year older, was willful and opinionated. “I doubt the nuns would even consider such a thing.” Lorelei’s expression grew wistful. “We just wanted a Season like our friends.
” Juliana gave her a sharp look. “I told you not to bring that up.” “It’s all right,” Emily said. “If things go the way I hope they will, you can both return to London for next year’s Season.” While Lorelei’s face brightened, Juliana shook her head. “I do not care if I have a Season or not. What is the point? To marry someone who will try to control me? I will not be forced into that.” Like I had been. “You should not bring up Em’s marriage, either,” Lorelei said accusingly. “It is all right,” Emily said again.
“It does not matter now.” Initially, she’d had no choice. When their parents had been killed in a carriage accident five years ago, her father, Baron Caldwell, had very little in his bank account. Ever the hopeful entrepreneur, he’d sold his land to invest in new inventions, always telling them that the latest one was sure to be a success and they would soon have money to burn. When the Earl of Woodhaven—forty years her senior—had come calling afterward, with his proposal of marriage as well as the offer to take in her sisters, she hadn’t seen how she could refuse. She’d been only ten and nine with no idea of the man’s rotten soul. But that was in the past. Through some miracle—or perhaps because King George had a passion for science himself and had met her father several times—he’d seen fit to petition Parliament for a special dispensation awarding her the land title to forfeited holdings in Scotland that had belonged to the outlawed Clan MacGregor. She had decided, like Juliana, that no man was ever going to control her again. She was determined to handle the land operation herself.
She had been advised that some MacGregors still occupied the land, courtesy for not having fought at the Battle of Prestonpans nearly thirty years ago. She suspected King George also allowed them to stay partially because his mother’s confidant was Lord Bute, a Scotsman whose estates were near Glen Strae. However, she had also been told after receiving the land deed that she was within her rights to have the clan vacate the land. From the records she’d seen, the holdings didn’t seem to be doing well. The profit wasn’t much, but Emily was determined that would change. Since she would need someone’s help in learning everything about successfully managing the land, she’d decided she would simply explain that she intended to be accommodating and allow the clan to stay. The situation would be beneficial to all of them. Emily smiled at her sisters and leaned back against the squab. “Everything is going to be fine. You will see.
” … Ian MacGregor watched incredulously from the battlements of Strae Castle as a carriage followed by three…no, four…wait…five wagons made their way up the perilously steep, winding road that led to his home. The carriage must belong to the Countess of Woodhaven, but by the devil’s own horns! How long did the old dowager plan to stay? He knew his lands—MacGregor lands—had been annexed by the Crown and sequentially leased to an earl years ago, simply because his father had refused to change his surname. He had refused to do the same when his father died. MacGregors were the purest branch of Gaels in Scotland, descended directly from Albiones! Their motto wasn’t My Race is Royal for nothing. That their name, and the clan itself, was still considered banished by the English government made no sense. The grievances that had impelled Queen Mary to issue the edict were long past. Hopefully, Lord Mount Stuart would be able to persuade the present monarch to restore their rightful name and place in history. And soon. Ian wanted to start the process of gaining back the legal right to his lands. MacGregor lands.
Meanwhile, there was this… He squinted at the caravan plodding its way closer. He’d received notice a fortnight ago from the local magistrate that the widow of the Earl of Woodhaven had decided to visit. The earl had been in his mid-sixties and Ian had no idea why his wife, who had to be close in age, would make the trip all the way from London. He’d been careful in the reports he had to make to the earl’s estate to undervalue both the crops and livestock so the Englishman wouldn’t come snooping up here. Now it seemed the old dowager had decided to come sniff around. He grimaced when he looked at the line of wagons. She wouldn’t need to unpack any of it. He’d already come up with a plan, aided by his brothers and uncles, to make sure her visit was neither comfortable nor accommodating. The grimace turned to a smile. She’d soon be wishing for a return to the luxuries of London.
Turning, he made his way down the steps and across the bailey to the massive front door where his sister Fiona, his ward Glenda, and three of his brothers awaited him. He had no idea where Devon might be, but no one ever knew where his fourth brother was most of the time. “Ye must have heard the noise of them approaching,” he said. “Aye,” his brother Carr answered. “Sounds like a cavalry unit comin’,” his other brother, Alasdair added. “Why would they be bringin’ so many wagons?” Fiona asked, her eyes growing round as the whole line came into sight. Rory, his third brother, snorted. “’Tis just like a woman, thinkin’ she canna exist less she changes her gown every five minutes.” Ian had an uneasy feeling those wagons didn’t contain just clothes, but he kept his thoughts to himself as he watched the carriage come through the open arch of the gateway. The portcullis always stayed up these days and the drawbridge down, since Scotland was not at war, but for a brief moment he almost wished he had barred the entrance.
Then he shook his head. He was nine and twenty. It was ridiculous to let some little old lady intimidate him. The carriage finally rolled to a stop in front of them. Ian motioned for a groom to open the door and assist the woman down. He had no intention of paying homage, but Highland ways did call for hospitality. At least, initially. His eyes widened as a girl stepped down who couldn’t be any older than Fiona, except where his sister’s hair was as black as his own, this one’s was pale as moonlight. Her eyes had a silvery cast that made her look almost otherworldly. He caught Alasdair, who always had an eye for the ladies, staring and gave him a poke.
“Probably a daughter.” Then another one stepped out whose hair was the coppery color of sunset. She looked around, her ginger-colored eyes practically snapping as she frowned. “Looks like she wants to pick a fight.” Rory grunted. “Women should nae argue with a man.” Fiona shot him a look. “Ye doona do so well keeping me quiet—” “Probably another daughter,” Ian interrupted before a real fight did break loose. At least that might explain the need for a lot of gowns. Even though Fiona preferred breeches, he knew most young women didn’t.
“How many children do ye think the dowager has?” Carr, ever the analytical one, asked as a third woman stepped down. “I…doona…ken.” Ian’s breath caught. This last one looked like an angel descended from heaven. Her hair was like spun gold, her complexion like fresh cream, and her eyes a deep blue that reminded him of Loch Awe on a cloudless day. He found himself moving forward in spite of planning to wait at the steps. “I am Ian MacGregor, the…” He’d almost said laird, but, since the word was banned—by the English, at least—and he didn’t need to stoke any English fires. “…one in charge here. The missive I received dinna say the dowager would be bringing three lovely daughters.” He smiled at her, then peered inside the carriage, which was empty.
“Where is your mother?” “Resting in peace beside my father,” the angel answered. Even her voice sounded heavenly, clear and melodious as harp strings being plucked. Then the words registered. He drew his brows together. “Your mother is…nae with ye?” One golden brow arched. “It would seem not.” He suddenly felt like a green lad or, at least, a dolt. Of course her mother wouldn’t be here if she was dead. But what the devil… He straightened to his full height and squared his shoulders. “Where is the dowager Countess of Woodhaven?” Her lips curved in the slightest of smiles and he noticed how full and lush they were.
Very kissable. Mayhap… “I am she.” It took a moment for those words to sink through his rapidly lustful thoughts. Then he blinked. “Ye are the dowager?” She nodded. “I am Emily Woodhaven. These are my sisters, Miss Lorelei Caldwell…” She gestured to the blonde and then to the redhead. “…and Miss Juliana Caldwell.” “But I thought…that is, I mean…I dinna…” He stopped himself before he sounded even more like an eejit. “We were nae expectin’ three lasses.
” “Do not worry about accommodations.” Emily pointed toward the wagons. “We brought our own beds.” He frowned. Did the woman think a MacGregor could not offer a bed… Er, accommodations? His mind didn’t need to be thinking of beds right now or the pleasures to be found in one. He turned his gaze to the wagons instead. “What else did ye bring?” “Just the things that are valuable to me and my sisters. I am sure it will all fit into a room or two at the most.” His frown returned. “But why? Ye’ll just be staying long enough to see the property, aye?” “Well…no.
” She looked at her sisters and then back to him. “We plan to live here.” “What?” He heard the word spoken in unison behind him where his brothers lingered. She glanced at them, then opened her reticule to withdraw a document and took a deep breath. “I am sure you will find everything in order,” she said as she handed him the papers. “This is the title deed. I am the new owner here.” … For the space of a full minute, Emily could have heard a needle drop on the soft ground. No one spoke. But then, they probably didn’t have to.
The stunned looks on the faces of the men behind Ian slowly changed and she could almost see a dark cloud building over their heads. The cloud could have been her overactive imagination, since the three men and the one girl all had raven black hair. The younger girl had lighter brown hair. The men’s eyes—narrowed at the moment —ranged from blue to green to hazel. As she tried not to overtly stare at them, they seemed to increase in size, which was already formidable, both in height and width of shoulders. Emily tore her gaze away and looked up at Ian defiantly. “Up” being the operative word, since he was even taller and broader than his brothers. She was not exactly short herself, at five and a half feet, but she barely came to his shoulder. She squared her own and refused to look away. It was only then that she noticed the unusual golden color of his eyes.
Like a wolf’s. And he was eyeing her as a wolf might its prey. She could almost feel the tension in his body, as though all those muscles were coiled and ready to spring. A sudden scraping sound nearly caused her to jump. Then she realized he had crumbled the papers in one large fist. Perhaps announcing that she was the new owner could have waited, given that his face looked like it were chiseled out of stone. She took another deep breath and hoped her voice wouldn’t shake. “Were you not informed about the deed?” For a moment, she didn’t think he was going to answer. “Nae. I wasna.
” It sounded like a growl and for a brief second, she wondered if there was any truth to the myth of werewolves. She gave herself an inward shake. If nothing else, she had to appear brave for her sisters who for once were silent and watching her. Nor would it do to show fear in front of the MacGregors. She’d learned that much from her husband. She lifted her chin. “I am sorry you were not informed.” She gestured to the crushed papers. “That copy of the deed should make it quite clear once you read it.” He made a sound that was definitely a growl this time, and she forced a smile.
“But do not worry. I have no intention of asking you to leave.” This time she distinctly heard a series of growls from the group behind Ian and swallowed hard. Somehow she managed to keep the smile pasted on her face. “In fact, I would like to ask your help in teaching me to manage this holding. That should be to all of our benefits, do you not think?” For a moment he stared at her with an expression between wary and cautious, as though he might be dealing with someone not quite sane. Then he turned to his brothers and all hell broke loose as they started shouting in Gaelic and gesturing wildly. Emily tried not to cringe. This wasn’t turning out exactly as she expected.