Excerpt: To Tempt A Highland Duke
Fenworth House, Perth, Scotland 1814
Dougray Firth, Viscount Crew, enjoyed the quiet of the late hour, or early morning, whichever way you chose to look at it. He took another swig from the near empty bottle of whisky in his hand and looked up at the night sky.
Fate was a bastard. He’d known that for years, but tonight it stabbed him hard.
On this warm summer night he sat on the terrace of Fenworth House, the Earl of Fenworth’s countryseat, cursing his father the Duke of Monreith. His best friend’s little sister, Flora, the woman he thought he would marry, was to be wed in the morning but not to him.
And whose fault was that?
He closed his eyes and sighed, letting the whisky wash away the terrible memories of six years ago. He’d been eighteen and his father’s meddling had destroyed his world.
He wanted the whisky to give him courage. To give him the courage to give his father exactly what he wanted—Dougray’s agreement to wed Flora instead. Doing so the day of her wedding would be a scandal, but they would live that down.
He also knew Flora would eagerly forego Lord Grafton if he asked her to marry him instead.
But he couldn’t marry her.
He loved her. She was his best friend. The only woman who got him through Connie’s death and the one person who had not let him give up on his search for his son, the son the Duke had taken from him.
Because Dougray loved her he would let her go.
For to marry her could sign her death warrant.
He took another long slug from the bottle still in his hand. The fiery liquid burned his throat; that is what brought tears to his eyes.
He wiped his face with the sleeve of his linen shirt.
He sat consumed by misery when out of the corner of his eye he saw a ghostly figure slip through the front entrance and walk into the rose garden that led down to the small pond at the front of the estate.
He knew who it was and where she was going.
Dougray knew this house better than his own. He’d spent more time here than at his father country estate. Angus Mackenzie, the Earl of Fenworth’s son was his best friend and Flora’s older brother.
He told himself not to follow, but his feet did not want to listen. The almost empty bottle fell to the terrace as he set off in pursuit.
He didn’t catch up to her until she had reached the summerhouse. This is where they’d come to be alone. To share their hopes, fears, and dreams. It was where six months ago he had stolen his first kiss from her.
She was sitting on the bench in her nightgown, her knees drawn up to her chest with her head resting on them. He heard a sniff and realized she was crying. The sound made him almost double over with pain.
“Don’t cry, sweeting.”
Flora jumped at the sound of his voice. She had not heard him enter, so lost in her own misery.
“Go away, Dougray. I want to be alone.”
He reached her side but could not bear to touch her. “Iain is a nice man. Will becoming his wife be so terrible?”
She looked up, her eyes awash with pain. “He’s not you.”
He crouched down in front of her. “I cannot marry you. I just can’t.”
She studied his face and he did not hide the tear that slipped from his eye.
“This past year I really thought you had finally gotten over Connie’s death. I thought you’d opened your heart to me. We shared our hopes for the future. You let me fall in love with Connor as if he were my own wee boy. Just tell me why?”
He had no words. Instead he leaned forward and pressed a soft, chaste kiss to her lips.
“Do you hate your father so much that you’d use me as a pawn to hurt him. Is it because he is desirous of our match that you purposely opposed it?” Her sorrow was now replaced with anger. “I hate you Dougray Firth. I hate you for making me fall in love with you. For giving me a dream and then taking it away. Just go away before you break my heart completely.” Her head lowered to her knees and she began sobbing.
He couldn’t stand it. He reached down and scooped her into his arms and took her place on the bench, placing her in his lap. She did not stop crying. She merely buried her face against his chest and sobbed.
He sat there gently rocking her and wished things could be different. He wished he didn’t love her so much. But it was because he loved her he would let her go. Seeing her married to another would be his living hell but at least she would be alive and he would be able to see her occasionally.
He didn’t know how long they sat there. Eventually her sobbing stopped and she fell asleep in his arms.
He pressed a kiss to her head and imprinted the feel of her into his memory and heart.
Finally as dawn began to break he carried her back toward the house. He was halfway through the rose garden when Angus appeared.
“Give her to me.”
He didn’t want to but he knew Angus was angry and hurt. He gently passed Flora to her brother. She didn’t even stir.
Angus shook his head. “I don’t know why you are doing this. If I believed like most that it is to get back at your father I would beat you until you could not walk for days. But I know it is something else. I hope one day you will have the decency to tell me why.”
Angus turned his back to enter the house. He stopped with his foot on the first step. “I think it best you leave immediately after the wedding breakfast. And I need some time to get over this.”
He knew his friendship with Angus would never be the same.
He’d lost two friends this night.