The chamber door creaked open. “She’s gone, master. As ye requested. The lass will not bother ye.”
“Although, I didnae think ye reputation with the lassies had spread so far south.”
He opened his eyes. Angus stood on the threshold, his thumbs tucked into his kilt.
“What do you mean?” he asked, sitting up straighter.
“She spoke like a lowlander. Or maybe English. I cannae tell the difference. Anyway, she wasn’t from these parts.”
He lowered his feet from the stool, his fingers gripping the armrests tight until his knuckles turned white. “Describe her.”
Angus scratched the grey bristles on his chin. “Now. She weren’t a redhead, like many a bonnie lassie—”
“Angus,” he growled impatiently.
“She were light of hair. Fair. Pale. She’s not dug neeps out of the ground, I can tell ye.”
“Did she give her name?”
The steward shook his head. “Nae. I declined her entry, like ye commanded me to do and she protested, as expected.” He raised a disapproving eyebrow. “She wept, poor lassie. She was like ‘em all that come a’knocking. Nothing in her hands or on her back. Although, her dress were finer than most. Odd that she didnae ask for the laird. She called ye captain.”
He rose to his feet, his anxiety growing. “So where did she go?”
Angus shrugged. “Back t’village I expect. Odd creature. Said ye were promised to her.”
He ran past Angus, knocking the man to one side. Nearly tumbling down the stairs, he hurried toward the front door and fumbled with the bolt.
Outside it was drizzling and the gloom of dusk prevented him from seeing anything. “Claire,” he yelled. “Claire, come back.” Running out, he kicked up the mud with his boots and his clothes felt icy damp. Unlike the folk who lived in the Highlands and were accustomed to the hardships of the climate, Claire was not and unless he found her quickly, she would succumb to the bitter cold.
The murky air was impenetrable. If he struggled to see the path, then she was even less likely to keep on it.
He’d not sensed her arrival, but he hadn’t expected or sought it. Why was she here when he expressly forbade her to come to Scotland? She’d blatantly disobeyed him. He feared something ghastly had befallen her and the consequences had driven her to undertake the arduous journey alone. His response to her disobedience would be dependent on the nature of those unanswered questions.
He needed sharper vision to see in the dark. Drawing his shirt over his head, he let it drop into a puddle. Finding her was of paramount importance, even if meant exposing himself to her as another.
“Claire,” he called out. “Stay put. I’ll find you.”
He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply and waited. When it came, the sensation was violent, painful. He absorbed it, as he had done countless times before now. By the time he’d finished, his breeches lay shredded on the ground alongside his boots.
The thickening rain landed on his nose. He snorted and a bloom of hot breath sprouted out of his nostrils. Lifting his head high, he charged forward.
Early September, 1815
He knelt on one knee, took her hand in his, and stared diligently into her widening eyes.
Claire held her breath. Finally, after weeks of courtship, Captain Felix Hughes was ready to propose.
He cleared his throat. “My dear Claire. It has been an honour to walk out with you over the summer. We have shared many lovely weeks and I had intended to keep your company for many more. However.” He paused, during which Claire experienced the awful sinking feeling of impending disappointment. “News has reached me from afar and I must away, immediately, to Scotland.”
Her world crumbled. With a trembling lower lip, she slid her hand out from his. “Scotland?”
Felix rose, stretching out his bent knee, and perched on a chair next to hers. He’d lost the warm glow to his face and he appeared unusually pensive. “I have to visit my estate in the Highlands.”
“Your estate?” she repeated, astounded. “You’re Welsh, are you not?”
“On my father’s side. My mother hailed from Ross-shire. Her grandfather was Laird of Garve. By default I own the lands. What’s left of them,” he added with a frown.
“But, but,” she stuttered, “you cannot go.”
The weeks of wooing, visiting the tearooms of Shrewsbury’s finest hotels and the lengthy strolls in the park with her mean-spirited aunt in tow were all for nothing. “Do you not love me, sir?”
Tears threatened and she refused to let them fall. So many of her previous beaus had turned out to be unsuitable. Before the gallant captain, she’d been courted by a viscount, who had turned out to be a rascal of the worst kind. He now lay permanently in bed due to a riding accident. A misfortune that had saved her from a scandal. It had been Captain Hughes and her good friend, Ella, Lady Powell, who’d rescued her from ruination.
“Oh, sweet Claire, that I do,” he declared, clasping his hands together as if in prayer. “This is unforeseen. I’d not anticipated this need to travel.”
“For how long must you be absent?” A few weeks she could bear, perhaps. She’d grown accustomed to his frequent visits and the lilt of his voice. The scar upon his face—a legacy of his bravery in the French Wars—had faded to a thin line. When he removed his hat, the tufts of auburn hair flopped around his ears, curling gently. The sun had bleached the redness and in its place a rich brown colour had flourished, which matched his chocolate eyes. Although he no longer wore the red tunic of an officer, he dressed smartly with a neat cravat and black breeches. When she lingered a little on his fine appearance, it caused all manner of strange sensations about her person.
He examined his boots. “Through the autumn until Christmas.”
“Christmas!” Not weeks. Felix spoke of months. “It is barely September. What of our betrothal? You have scattered more than many a hint at marriage in these past weeks; have you no wish to wed?”
“It will come, don’t fret. I’m not abandoning you.”
She felt abandoned. Thoroughly so. Aghast and shocked, she could not stand the thought of separation. The yearning in her had been put into motion and nothing would abate her need to be with him. “Take me with you.”
A firm line of horizontal eyebrows formed. “No,” he said sharply.
“No?” she echoed with disbelief.
Something had come over him during the last few occasions they had met. Something that caused him to be altered in behaviour. The subtleties she’d noted now seemed more obvious. In both person and spirit, Felix had changed. She’d noted his eyes darkened more often and his shoulders had filled out his jacket as if he’d been hauling logs or carrying a hod of bricks. Even the scar had magically lost its vividness and diminished. Not that she found its addition rendered the captain ugly. A scar, especially one won in battle, added to his appeal.
“No. I shall accompany you, sir and familiarise myself with your Scottish legacy.”
“Absolutely not,” Felix enunciated in a manner reminiscent of her strict father, who currently resided in London. “It would not be appropriate without a chaperone. Also, my humble estate, which encompasses Luichart Castle—a tower house—has suffered. I’m required to attend to matters that are not suitable to a fine lady as yourself.”
Frozen to her seat, she could not comprehend what matters a man might attend to that a lady should not. Scotland was not at war. The air was clean and healthy. It would be an idyllic location to continue their courtship. “Surely, your estate can not be so mean. I might be a lady used to town life, but I’m quick to adapt. I managed the transition from London to Shrewsbury.”
Felix clucked his tongue and shook his head. “My dear, the Highlands of Scotland are far removed in quality of habitation than anything you have experienced. I ask you to trust me. I have your best interests at heart.”
“What of my heart? Your leaving does not put my heart in a good place.” She bowed her head and sniffed. Bad luck stalked her and she feared she would never marry. If the captain met a bonny Scottish girl and forgot about her, Claire would lose the one man she loved beyond all others who had knocked at her door.
He reached over and drew her hand back into his; lifting her hand to his lips, he kissed the line of whitened knuckles. She experienced the flurry of tingles in her scalp, which often accompanied his touches upon her bare flesh. A rare event and one that her aunt would frown upon.
She withdrew her hand sharply. “Since we are not engaged, you are hardly in a position to instruct me.”
“I promise, Claire,” he said softly, “that upon my return, you will be my wife. This undertaking of mine will strengthen our commitment to each other by demonstrating our fortitude.”
Bold words, she agreed, but ones she might struggle to achieve. Claire knew she had a weakness: impatience. “I will miss you,” she said. “Please, reconsider—”
“No. You will stay here in Shrewsbury under the care of your aunt until I return. I shall write, as often as I can. If you were my wife, then as your husband my commands would be obeyed, would they not?”
She’d paid little attention to the wording of marriage vows, preferring to concentrate her imagination on the romantic elements—kissing and lovemaking—of which the latter remained an untested enigma. Her friend, Ella, had adapted to marriage life easily and extolled the virtues. However, when probed about activities of the bedchamber, Ella would flush about the face and stumble over her words, refusing to embroider any of Claire’s theories with fact.
“He puts it inside of you, I know this. Does he jiggle it or hold still?” she’d asked once in hushed tones.
“Oh, gracious, Claire,” Ella had exclaimed, her cheeks reddening into blush. “You’ll find out when you marry. Save your innocence until then.”
Her delay in answering Felix was duly noted. “Claire?” he prompted.
“Naturally, sir, I shall do my utmost to honour my wedding vows. Once I have given them,” she added tactlessly.
Another cluck of his tongue. “If you had, and then disobeyed me, I would assure you, young lady, that I would discipline you.”
Her mouth wordlessly swung open—discipline was not something she had considered.
Felix continued, his tone firm, yet quietly delivered. “I should warn you that I would take you over my knee and soundly spank you.”
If he were any other man, she would laugh at him. How dare he suggest it. It would never happen. However, his features remained locked into a stern expression, one of such authority, it caused a storm of nervous flutters in her belly.
She forced out an embarrassed giggle. “Really, Captain, I shall assume you jest.”
He rose to his feet, ignoring her last remark. “I think it best we do not see each other again until I return, it will draw out our goodbyes.”
She followed him into the narrow hallway. The young footman dashed out from his hiding place to open the door. She faced Felix and an awkward pause ensued. Outside the rain pattered on the paving stones. Felix tapped his hat onto his head and, bowing down, brushed a swift kiss on her cheek.
“Don’t forget me, Claire. I shall think of you every day.”
“I never stop thinking of you, sir. I shall write.”
“Good. I will look forward to your letters, although sadly the postal service beyond Inverness is somewhat lackadaisical in nature.”
She watched him walk at a pace down the street before the footman eased the door shut.
Claire’s lack of patience included her wish to escape her aunt’s clutches. With Felix’s departure, she would write to Ella and invite herself for a visit. It would help pass the time.
Felix left the townhouse that Claire shared with her aunt, Lady Armitage. His heart was heavy. He’d never anticipated Scotland would require his attention so soon. It had only been three years since his last visit and five normally sufficed. In his absence, he relied on his steward and gillie, Angus, to manage the lands and upkeep of Luichart Castle.
Walking through the market, where the stall holders covered up their wares, protecting them from the shower, he avoided the bustling taverns and instead chose a side street. Rapping his knuckles on the unobtrusive door of a shuttered building, he gained access. The doorman greeted him by name, and took his hat and overcoat.
“His lordship awaits you in the green room, Captain.”
Pipe smoke funnelled out of the adjacent room into the dark corridor. Gentleman’s clubs were notorious for the smoking of all manner of weeds and Shrewsbury’s only club was a popular establishment. Knocking on the door of the green room, Felix entered without pausing.
Lounging in an armchair, his favourite hound at his feet, was Gethin, Lord Powell.
Felix bowed. Here, on the borders of Wales, Gethin outranked the captain. In Scotland, where Felix assumed a different title, the status would be switched.
Felix flopped into another chair opposite Gethin. The fire was unlit. The room held the heat of a dwindling summer’s day and probably the last until the next year. Felix sensed the changing of the seasons acutely.
“It’s done. I told her,” he said glumly.
“A necessity, my friend.” Gethin picked up a wineglass and took a sip. “It’s a pity. Ella had already picked out a suitable frock for her wedding dress.”
“It’s postponed, not cancelled. Claire, naturally, was upset.” He shook his head as Gethin offered him a drink.
“Nature has set its own schedule and we are bound to it, you and I.” Gethin set down his glass and leaned forward. “There is no doubting the compulsion that affects you?”
Felix stared into the empty fireplace. It wasn’t so much a compulsion, as a necessity. Ignoring it would be dangerous to his health. “It grows stronger. In the past, I’ve found my trips to Scotland thrilling and they add years to my well-being.” He touched his cheek. “Already my scar is fading fast.”
Gethin smiled, his dark eyes beaming in the dimly lit room. “Ah, the vitality, it’s all-consuming in its power. Then, my friend, you’re doing the right thing. To stay would diminish your chances of extending your bloodline.”
“She wants to come with me.”
Gethin raised an eyebrow and smirked. “I hope you dissuaded her.” The hound at his feet whined and he patted its head.
“I forbade her. However, my excuse lacked adequate reasoning. She only hears me speak of loyalty to my estates. I couldn’t tell her the truth.”
The hound rested his chin on Gethin’s knee and licked its jowls. “Rest assured, that day will come when she’s ready.”
“And she isn’t. Her innocence is her beauty. My needs would overwhelm her.” Felix closed his eyes, ignoring the dog and tried to dismiss the daydreams that teased his waking thoughts—virginal Claire in a white gown undressing before him. He would witness the unveiling of her breasts and untouched sex, his blood raging with pulsating heat.
“You might have underestimated her abilities.” Gethin disturbed Felix’s dream. “I did with Ella.”
Lord Powell had wasted no time in seducing his bride when they first met. Something that Felix envied. “You bedded her before marriage—”
“Because I knew she was mine to claim and take the moment I laid eyes on her.”
Felix admired Gethin’s resilience in matters of the heart. Felix didn’t doubt his own feelings toward Claire, they were fixed. However, only after he sated his baser needs could he approach Claire with the truth in the knowledge he was ready. It was time for him to escape his sleepy life in Shropshire and Scotland was the place for his dominance to thrive unimpeded.
“I’m not the same creature as you, my lord. I’m driven by the seasons, by the call of my mates, not the hunt. They need my protection. I must fight for them. When I return from Scotland, I shall take Claire as my wife, here in Shrewsbury, where she belongs.”
“And the truth?”
“Will be revealed. Her consent is implicit on that knowledge. You know how it feels to yearn and be left unsatisfied. It would drive me mad not to go.”
“I will ask Ella to be her companion once again in your absence.”
Felix smiled. “You’ll take her under your roof?” Lord and Lady Powell led a secluded existence and rarely accepted guests under their roof for fear their particular way of life might be exposed.
“I’m careful. Ella will not say anything. She knows not to and will face the consequences if she does.” Gethin stroked the dog’s nose.
“Ah. The firm hand of Gethin.”
His companion’s lips briefly twitched in amusement. “You’ll be wise to follow in my footsteps with regard to such sanctions. Claire is inclined to be impulsive. Her indiscretion with the viscount should have been discouraged.”
He agreed. “Her aunt has been lax. I intend to establish a different rule of order with Claire. One that will suit both our needs.”
Gethin raised his glass as if in toast. “I shall drink to that.”
“Then, I shall change my mind. I will drink a glass with you, my lord. My last before I leave tomorrow.”
Gethin poured from the decanter, then passed the glass to Felix. “May Scotland bring you good fortune and renewal, my friend.” The glasses clinked together.
“You cannot possibly believe he won’t marry you, Claire. Captain Hughes is besotted with you,” Ella declared. Using the needle in her hand, she drew the stitch through the fabric.
Claire wished she had her friend’s confidence in Felix’s intentions. “I think it is a ruse to avoid marriage. He is not the marrying type perhaps. If he hides in Scotland, he will forget me. Why else would he suddenly depart and abandon me.”
Ella lay down her embroidery and gave Claire her full attention. “Don’t be so unsure of your charms, my dear. He is the man for you, of that I’m certain. He has matters to attend to and you should allow him to see to his duties without criticism. I have learnt much from my Lord Powell to know that men have the better hand in decisions.”
“And we fairer sex are of little influence? I would not like to openly disagree with Captain Hughes, but neither will I be ridden roughshod over.” She nearly mentioned Felix’s warning about discipline, but decided Ella would be equally horrified and she did not wish to tarnish the captain’s reputation.
“I meant in manly affairs—finance and estates. Wars, too, it seems are solely the jurisdiction of men. I, however, run this house.” Ella waved her hand in the air. The friends sat in the vast drawing room of Grendle Hall, Ella’s home. Soon they would be served tea and then they would take a turn about the garden before the day lost its warmth.
“It is a fine house,” Claire agreed. “You think it is simply business matters? But, Ella, three months? Why so long and unexpectedly? If he loves me as much as I love him, he would arrange for me to join him.”
“It’s Scotland. The rugged Highlands. Fewer roads, no telegraph service and with summer ending, the weather will be inclement.”
“Have you been there?” asked Claire.
Ella shook her head. “Gethin has, although not in recent years. He prefers to stay here near Wales.”
“I’d no idea Captain Hughes had Scottish blood running through his veins. I believed the lodge in Wales was his only home. It is a hunting lodge his father acquired, whereas in Scotland he spoke of a grander structure—Luichart Castle.”
Ella smiled. “Titles aren’t a good indication of grandness. I should stay your curiosity and wait for his return.” She picked up her embroidery and tilted it toward the candlelight.
Claire wished she could be as patient as Ella. A week after Felix’s departure she already missed him and Aunt Agatha maintained a suffocating presence. Escaping to Grendle Hall had been a blessing. However, in another week, she had to return to Shrewsbury. Her aunt was insistent.
“I wish he would speak more candidly to me,” Claire sighed. “From the moment he met me, I’ve detected he holds back his true feeling from me.”
“Oh, Claire, would that you understood. Not all is what it seems in matters of the heart. You will find out. My advice remains steadfast though. Do not undertake anything that might lead you to regret your actions. Felix is a soldier and accustomed to taking risks; you are not.”
Ella spoke good advice; however, Claire was tired of playing the ignorant girl. She pressed her lips together. While they walked around the garden, a small voice whispered in her ear, telling her she had the courage of any man and that she go to him. It sounded like Felix’s voice. If her dreams were any indication of her lust, she was drawn to Felix in a way that no other man could conquer. She had to be by his side or she’d lose her mind.
Her last night at Grendle, Claire played the pianoforte for her hosts. Gethin listened, his arm draped around his wife’s shoulder in an uncustomary display of affection. Ella cradled herself in the crook of his arm and only stirred to offer a round of applause. Claire sensed she’d outstayed her welcome and that the couple preferred their privacy once again. She had to return to Shrewsbury and her redoubtable aunt, unless she concocted another plan. Visiting her parents was out of the question. She loathed London and the busy streets. Her father’s business kept him locked in his office, while her mother took to her bed with one malady after another.
If she was prepared to travel she could go to the continent, except the war had left her nervous of other countries.
Scotland with its lochs and snow-capped mountains called to her. Surely Felix wouldn’t refuse her a brief visitation before the weather deteriorated? Just a short excursion north would not incur his wrath if she travelled by coach and stayed in reputable inns. She could be back by October and if he enjoyed her company, perhaps he’d let her stay on longer. Maybe, even possibly suggest they hasten their marriage. The laws in Scotland regarding marriage were different to those of England. As she was only just twenty years old, she’d need her parents’ permission to marry in England, but in Scotland a young woman could marry at sixteen. No banns need be read, either. It would be a perfect solution all round. Then, she could at least return to Shrewsbury a married woman, thereby putting an end to both the gossip about her previous liaisons and her aunt’s miserable tales of woe about spinsterhood.
The plan took root in the carriage ride home. She’d plot a journey; rely on her generous allowance for expenses and the purchase of boots, a fur-lined cape, and gloves to protect her against the cold.
If she could travel by stagecoach as far as Inverness, from there she could hire a trap to take her into the glens and to Loch Luichart.
Felix would be so delighted to see her and would put aside his anger. If he yearned for her as much as she did for him, he’d understand her need for adventure.
Claire made a decision. It was time to grow up and take greater responsibility for her actions. No more coddling by her aunt. She’d impress Felix with her independence and fortitude. Maybe not in the way he envisaged, but the outcome would be the same. Others might call it running away and being irresponsible, but if she returned wedded, what could her aunt do about it? Nothing, absolutely nothing.