The Widow and the Highlander – Martha Keyes

The only warmth in the library at Dunverlockie Castle emanated from the teacup Christina MacKinnon held in her hand. The room was otherwise dim, the sole window letting in the dreary grays of a sky emptied of its rain only an hour ago. Every now and then, a laugh rang out from the drawing room down the corridor, echoing eerily until it reached Christina. She stared blankly at the little wisps of steam that curled into the air and disappeared. The tea was almost gone—she had been so eager for its warmth, she hadn’t even waited for it to cool fully. All the formal parts of her husband’s funeral were over, but she knew it would likely be some time—days, even—before everyone would depart. That time couldn’t come soon enough. She set the teacup down and put a hand to the long piece of foolscap sitting on the desk beside it. It was gratitude she should feel to see the document. But instead, it felt like a weight. She didn’t want to inherit Dunverlockie. But she couldn’t deny she needed it. Her family needed it. And, whatever her feelings, it belonged to her now, with all its cold, stony corridors and their unwelcome memories. Her dying father had taken no risks when he’d married her to Gordon MacKinnon.

If he was going to sink such a large portion of his money into a fledgling estate like Dunverlockie, he had wanted to ensure that Christina was taken care of in the unlikely event that she was ever widowed. It had all seemed so distant and improbable when the arrangements had been made, but her father’s stipulations in the marriage contract had proven wise. Christina had no doubt the MacKinnons would be turning her out of the castle now, leaving her to her own devices if it weren’t for the paper before her. Footsteps approached—the strong gait of a man—and Christina felt her muscles tighten instinctively. She forced herself to relax. Gordon was gone. She needn’t react that way anymore. She hated that she ever had. The latch lifted, and Angus MacKinnon appeared, his dark hair mussed from having removed his wig. It was he who would have been inheriting Dunverlockie if not for the arrangements Christina’s father had made with Gordon.

As things stood now, though, he had been shifted back a place in the succession. He couldn’t mind so terribly much. He was already laird of Benleith, a grander estate than this one. Angus smiled at her and closed the door behind him, eyes flitting to the desk. In his hand, he held a folded paper. “How are you, Christina?” He approached the desk. The smell of whisky hung about him, and she didn’t miss the redness of his eyes. They drooped with a hint of laziness born of drink. Had any of the MacKinnon men been sober for more than the time they spent asleep in the past few days? She rose from her chair, straightening her black petticoats. She never felt entirely at ease with Angus, for all his civility, and she felt even less so with him intoxicated.

She should go check on Elizabeth. There were so many men in the castle, and Christina trusted none of them—nor did she trust her sister’s ability to control her sharp tongue. “I am tired,” she answered, “but well enough.” He nodded at the various papers scattered over the desk. “It is quite a load to take on, is it not?” She glanced at them and managed a smile. “Yes, it is. I imagine it will take some time to understand it all.” He unfolded the papers in his hands. “I have a few more things for you to sign. Tallach left them with me after the burial.

” Christina suppressed a sigh and sat back down. She must have signed a hundred papers since Gordon’s abrupt illness and passing. He set a few sheets in front of her. “Just a few more formalities associated with the funeral. That is all.” She gave a passing glance at the top of the first paper—yet another document from Gordon’s man of business. He peered over her shoulder at the cup of tea. “Can I get you more tea? There’s some in the drawing room I could fetch.” “Thank you, but no,” she said, dipping her quill and scratching her signature across the bottom of the sheet. “Ah,” he said with a crooked smile.

“I had forgotten. Gordon told me you were particular about your tea.” She gave a perfunctory smile then blew on the ink and moved that page aside. Angus moved to stand behind her, setting a hand on the back of the chair. Whether it was a possessive stance or merely one to stabilize himself, she couldn’t be sure, but it made her uncomfortable. “I could help you, you know,” he said. “With the estate, I mean. As I said, it is a lot to manage—a man’s job. All these papers and signatures are only the beginning, I’m afraid. You will be managing tacks, bills with tradesmen, salaries for servants, disputes among the tenants—” “Yes, I understand,” she said, trying to conceal the testiness she felt.

She hardly needed the reminder of what she was taking on as the heir of Dunverlockie. Gordon hadn’t involved her in any of the estate matters. In many ways, laying the burden on Angus’s shoulders was tempting. But only for a moment. He made her uneasy—the entirety of the MacKinnon clan did, including her late husband—and she hardly wished to surrender any of her power or freedom now that she finally had some. “You needn’t worry yourself on my account,” she said. “You have plenty to occupy you with matters at Benleith.” “Oh, things are well enough in hand there—I may have to venture there now and again for short visits, but, I assure you, I shall not leave you here to fend for yourself. I will stay until things are in order.” She glanced up at him.

He was smiling, but she couldn’t help feeling there had been a hint of threat in his words. Did he worry she would make a bungle of things at Dunverlockie? That she was putting something in jeopardy he had a chance at ownership in? If she died now, Dunverlockie would go to Angus. She signed the last paper and rubbed her temples, feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on. Angus gathered the papers together, and Christina rose, hoping to end this interaction and go in search of her sister, Elizabeth. Angus didn’t move, though, from his spot behind her chair, and she tried to shift away from him. He stopped fiddling with the papers and looked at her as intently as his unfocused, bloodshot eyes would allow. “Let me help you, Christina.” He came so near she had to blink away his pungent breath. “I could do more than just manage the estate for you, you know.” He put a hand to her waist, and she swallowed down the nausea as she took two steps backward.

“I could take care of you,” he said. “Properly. As a wife. You wouldn’t need to worry your head over anything.” She took another step back, but it was matched by his own step forward, and panic began to build within her. “You have been drinking, Angus,” she said, trying for a lighter tone than her fear demanded she use. “You know not what you are saying.” She turned away from him and put more distance between them, heartbeat pounding in her ears. Angus had a reputation for being determined. “On the contrary.

” He followed her slowly but purposefully, his eyes glittering as they took her in. “I never think more clearly than with a few glasses of whisky in me.” The door opened behind Christina, and she startled at the sound. Elizabeth’s dark eyes moved from Christina to Angus, taking in the situation. “There you are, Christina.” Elizabeth’s gaze stayed trained on Angus. “I was looking for you. Can I have a word with you?” “Yes, yes,” Christina said. “We were just finishing some matters of business.” Angus’s mouth was pulled into a wry, almost mocking, smile, but he nodded.

“You know where to find me if you need me.” He ran a hand along the crease in the stack of papers he held and walked to the door, nodding at Elizabeth with a hint of displeasure in his expression. Christina waited until the door closed behind him then turned from her sister, shutting her eyes in relief. She didn’t want Elizabeth to see how Angus affected her. Elizabeth, though younger, had grown protective of Christina in her time at Dunverlockie, and she was impulsive enough that she might well do something rash if she felt Angus was importuning Christina. Gordon had disliked Elizabeth intensely, calling her all manner of names for her habit of unapologetically contradicting him. Angus seemed to be developing the same animus toward her. Christina had once had the same fire as Elizabeth within her, but she had learned to guard her tongue more carefully since her marriage. It had become a matter of survival. Gordon had done much more than call her names when he found her unyielding.

Elizabeth came up beside her, putting a hand on her arm. “Was he troubling you?” Christina swallowed and shook her head, turning toward her sister and mustering a smile. “No. Just having me sign a few more papers. It seems Tallach always has more.” Elizabeth continued to watch Christina, as though she didn’t believe her. She was lighter in coloring than Christina, her hair a sturdy brown rather than black. Her tongue could be soft as freshly churned butter or sharp as a tack. Elizabeth finally sighed and let her hand drop. “He makes my skin crawl.

Even more than Gordon did. It must be a MacKinnon trait, for I cannot so much as walk past the drawing room without feeling it. What Father was thinking, marrying you into this family…” She shook her head. “He knew he was dying. He was merely trying to ensure we were cared for.” Christina had said those words to herself a hundred times. He hadn’t known what Gordon was like —what the MacKinnons were like. Gordon had been very capable of playing the punctilious gentleman when the occasion required it. He had fooled them all, in truth. There had been very little of the gentleman in him.

Elizabeth walked over to the desk and brushed her finger along the feather of the quill. “Ensuring we were cared for and ruining himself in the process. It will be a miracle if we can ever afford to stop renting out Melmuir.” “Well, we hardly have need of it with Alastair off fighting in the Colonies.” Their family estate in Kininfar had been rented out ever since their father’s death over a year ago, and Alistair had enlisted almost three years ago now. With all of their father’s investments poured into Dunverlockie, there had been nothing left for Melmuir and the failed harvest the year of his death. “Yes,” Elizabeth said, “but when the war is over, I imagine he will sell out, and then what?” Christina shrugged. “He will come here. Or go stay with Aunt Dorothy. I imagine he will wish to see the others after so much time.

” Christina’s younger siblings, including Elizabeth, had gone to stay with their aunt and uncle after their father’s death. It was only a few months ago that Elizabeth had made the journey to Dunverlockie, apparently sensing from Christina’s letters that all was not well there. “I suppose so,” Elizabeth said. “You intend to keep it, then? Dunverlockie, I mean.” Christina lifted her shoulders. “I have little choice in the matter.” “Surely you have all the choice in the matter. That is what it means to own it, does it not? Why not sell it? Be done with this wretched place! You can buy something smaller and more comfortable, far away from here.” Christina said nothing for a moment, setting her hands on the cold stone ledge of the window. Her first emotion on the death of Gordon had been relief, followed by guilt—and then hope.

Hope that perhaps she finally had the power to leave it all behind. But it hadn’t been long before the hope was extinguished. “I may be the legal owner of Dunverlockie, Elizabeth, but surely you have come to know the MacKinnons well enough to realize that they would never allow me to sell it.” “How could they possibly stop you? It is yours to do with as you please.” Christina shot Elizabeth a look. “They would prevent the sale. They have the influence for it. Believe me. I have been thinking this through for days now. No one wants to be free of this place more than I.

” Elizabeth gave a resigned sigh and sat down in the chair. “I suppose you are right. If nothing else, though, at least the place is free of Gordon.” “Yes,” Christina said softly. Dunverlockie was free of Gordon’s physical presence, but she doubted it would ever be truly free of his influence and memory. There was a longer pause, and when Elizabeth spoke, it was with a touch of hesitation in her voice. “Shall you marry again? With an estate like this, you would have plenty of—” “No.” Christina’s voice sounded harsh even to her, and Elizabeth looked at her with wide eyes, as though she had been snapped at. “Forgive me, but I have no desire to marry again. None at all.

” “Not a marriage like the one you’ve just endured, of course,” Elizabeth replied. “But not every marriage is thus, and not every man is a MacKinnon—thank heaven for that.” Christina only shook her head. Perhaps there were men unlike Gordon and Angus and their kinsmen, but Christina had no intention of finding out. She had been mistaken in her judgment of a man once; she would not court the same error again.

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