Fenworth House, Perth, Scotland 1814
Dougray Firth, Viscount Crew, enjoyed the quiet of the late hour, or early morning, whichever way you looked 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 rang 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, that he would let her go. Seeing her married to another would be his living hell, but at least she would be alive and he could 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.
Edinburgh, August 1822 – eight years later
“Please stop giggling, and come and help me with the table setting,” Lady Flora wished Sarah, the young serving girl standing in the corridor, was a little less attractive. Sarah turned many a man’s head, too beautiful for her own good. Flora would remind Lady Mary to ensure the youngest and prettiest girls were locked well away from the powerful men who were arriving tomorrow.
The King being one of them.
Palace of Holyrood House was in the middle of a spring clean. For the first time in almost two centuries the King would step onto Scottish soil, and Lady Flora was lucky enough to have accepted an invitation to witness and part-take of the occasion. She’d been tasked with overseeing the dinning room decorations and table settings for the dinner to occur here in two night’s time.
Sarah scurried forward, approaching the large dining table dominating the room. “I’m sorry, my lady. I have ironed the other tablecloths as requested, but I need one of the men to carry them for me. They’re heavy.”
“I can fetch them for you, pretty Sarah.” The youthful male voice from the corridor revealed all. Flora wanted to roll her eyes. No wonder Sarah had been in the corridor giggling. Young Conner Firth leaned in the doorway, his eyes flirting with Sarah, and she was mesmerized by the handsome lad; as most of the serving girls, and even some palace ladies, were.
Dougray had been only eighteen when Connor was born. It seemed so long ago now. At fourteen years of age, and yet almost six feet tall already, Connor, with his father’s black hair and piercing blue eyes, was fulfilling her expectations of being a heartbreaker. Connor took after his father in more than just looks, it would seem. He loved the bonny lasses.
“Connor Firth. I’m sure your father has more important tasks for you than pestering the serving girls,” Flora scolded.
“Oh, Lady Flora, you know you are still my favorite,” and he laughed in his still to fully deepen voice.
She swung round with hands on her hips. “I remember a time when I put you over my knee. You’re not too old for me to do that again.”
This time he uncrossed his arms and winked at her. “I might just enjoy that.”
God help her, but she could feel her face flush with color. Oh, to be a young girl again. Connor certainly made her feel old, and yet she had only just turned eight and twenty.
A respectable age for a widow, but too young to stay a widow for the rest of your life.
“If your father catches you wasting time here, there will be hell to pay.”
At her words, his smile dimmed slightly.
She turned to Sarah who was still standing there playing with her hair. “Fetch two of the laundry lads to help you.”
Sarah sighed as she slipped past Connor, who’d stepped further into the room to let the young girl past. Flora was pretty sure she saw Connor’s fingers pinch her bottom as Sarah slipped out of the room.
“You should not be encouraging them, Connor. You of all people know the consequences for these young girls when they have been trifled with.” Connor’s mother had been a serving girl, just like Sarah.
He could not look her in the eye. “Tis’ only a bit of fun.”
“You are the Duke of Monreith’s son, that alone is enough to turn a girl’s head, let alone the fact you have your father’s good looks.”
“You forgot to say illegitimate son.” Connor’s eyes flashed with fire.
Flora walked to stand in front of him. “Your father loves you. He recognized you. He gave you his name. As far as most are concerned you are a duke’s son. So act like one.”
“He recognized me for my mother. He loved her.”
“He loves you too, from the moment he held you.” She cupped his cheek, noticing the slight stubble that was showing on his face now. “Aye, he loved your mother very much. That is why you are so precious to him.” And why Dougray Firth, the Duke of Monreith, had never married. He still held a torch for Connie, Connor’s mother, who had died in childbirth.
“Did you know he has decided to marry?” His eyes narrowed. “Because he wasn’t married to my mother, I cannot be his heir. After all these years, suddenly he wants an heir. It would appear I am no longer enough.”
So this was the reason Connor was acting up and trying to be the man he’d yet to become.
She drew him into a hug. “It does not mean he loves you any less. You know it’s the duty of any peer to ensure the continuation of the title. Your father being one of only a few Scottish dukes has even more pressure to ensure his lineage continues. And with the King’s visit…”
Connor pushed out of her embrace. “It has always just been father and I.”
“Oh, Connor, it still will be. You’re almost a man. If he marries and has a son, it will be years before your father can hunt, fish, and more with him. You’ll still have him to yourself and by the time a younger brother is grown, you’ll likely be married with your own family.”
“But she will be my stepmother. Bruce got a stepmother, and she was awful to him. What if she doesn’t like me and she convinces father to send me away?”
“He’d never do that, and he’d never marry a woman who could not love you. You are too important to him.”
Connor’s eyes filled with hope, and just as fast she watched the hope drain away. He scuffed his boots along the Persian rug. Suddenly a grin replaced his scowl. “You could marry him. I like you. You’d never come between father and I.”
A two-pronged pain almost ripped her apart. She’d been in love with Dougray for years, long before her family married her off to Viscount Iain Grafton. But Dougray’s heart closed after Connie’s death. Dougray was not there at the end of Connie’s life, and he never recovered from the role the late Duke of Monreith played in the sorry affair.
Over the years Flora came to recognize that Dougray had not loved her enough. He had stood aside and watched as she married another.
Besides, he would not want her now. She’d been married for over five years before her husband died, and the union never produced a child. She’d be a bad wager for a man needing an heir.
Dougray must know that truth because she had been a widow for three years and he’d never come courting her. They were friends, but not the same as it had been before she wed. Flora almost thought he avoided her as much as possible.
She wanted children more than anything. That was the primary reason she would risk marriage again, but not to someone who would be devastated if she never bore them a child. She’d pick a widower who already had children.
“You like my father, surely? You are good friends. Most women find him handsome. Or is it me you would not want as a son?”
She sighed. “I’d be honored to be your stepmother, but it’s not possible.”
His head tipped to the side. “You’re not that old, and you are very beautiful. I heard my father’s men say so.”
“I don’t think I could marry a man who still loved a ghost.”
Connor nodded. “I think he’s ready to move on. I heard him tell Mary.”
Lady Mary was Dougray’s sister, and Flora’s best friend.
If Dougray were ready to love again, the woman who could capture his battered heart would be one lucky woman indeed.
“So why not you?” Connor pushed.
“Think about it. I know your father has talked with you about men and women. I was married and yet I have no children.” Just saying the words filled her eyes with tears.
The boy noticed and quickly hugged her this time. “I did not mean to upset you. Please don’t cry.”
She wiped her eyes with the corner of her apron. “So you see your father is unlikely to consider me as potential marriage material.”
“I wish he did.”
She wished he did too, but if she married him and could not give him a child… he’d end up resenting her. Besides, he did not love her, perhaps he never had. She’d had enough of loveless marriages. Her next marriage might last over five years. Her previous marriage taught her she could not bear a long, loveless marriage. She would marry for love this time or not at all.
“Now run along and find something useful to do. This is an important visit for your father and for Scotland. Please try to do him proud and leave chasing the girls until next week.”
His cheeky grin was back. “I’ll try, but that will probably break a few hearts.” He blew her a kiss as he went out the door. “You’re still my favorite.”
She let out a sigh. Oh, to have a boy like Connor as her own.
Busy. She needed to keep herself busy so she could push away the emptiness deep inside.
Trouble was, she could not get Connor’s words out of her head—Dougray wanted to marry. Finally he was ready, only now it was too late. Everyone knew she couldn’t give him what he needed. A child. The King would likely not allow the match.Return to To Tempt A Highland Duke