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Bride of a Wicked Scotsman
The day began as any other.
Yet for some vague reason, Lady Maura O'Donnell reflected, something seemed different that day.
While the curtain of night retreated, dawn began its awakening. Snug in the warm nest of her bed at Castle McDonough, Maura watched as pale pink light hovered as far as the eye could see; it banished the shadows and deepened to amber and rose, at last spilling across the earth until it poured through the open curtains.
Ha! Whoever said that it rained in Ireland more than anywhere in the world had never lived here, on the northernmost tip of the isle!
Wide-awake now, Lady Maura rose from her bed. It was mid-June, but the mornings carried a chill yet. There was no rug on the floor, so she yanked back her toes at the feel of the cold wood. Jen the housekeeper had seen the once grand carpet beneath the four-poster whisked away while Maura was gone one day. A hazard and a relic, Jen declared with a glint in her eye, daring Maura to refute it when she yelped at its absence. Maura admitted that Jen was right when the threadbare carpet joined the burn pile and burst into flames thrice her height...why, thrice the height of Jen's husband Murdoch, truth be told.
Papa had promised her another the next time they made the trip to Dublin.
Maura hadn't reminded him. It was she who kept the books. There were no funds for such extravagances as beautiful, hand-woven carpets. The household staff had grown smaller through the years, as more rooms of the drafty castle were closed off. Now it was only the earl, herself, Murdoch, and Jen who resided in the main section of the castle.Maura's mother had died before she was six; she could scarcely remember her.
Shivering, she finally braved the cold floor and scampered toward the washstand. A floorboard creaked. She paused and glanced down, only to stub a toe on the edge of the next. Stopping, she ran the other toe along the loose edge of the long, pitted plank. As she washed her face, then combed her hair and tied it back with a length of ribbon, she decided she would have to call Patrick the Woolly in to fix it before she fell flat on her face. Her father had always claimed that Patrick the Woolly...not a soul in the valley called him otherwise...was the best carpenter in County Donegal. And he was, provided one used his services early in the day, before he'd had a pint too many. And if she did not have it fixed posthaste, her father would be wondering if she herself had imbibed with Patrick the Woolly.
A wistful sigh escaped. How dearly she wished there were funds to see the castle restored to its former glory. Oh, how Papa would beam . . . But she knew it would never be so. Little by little it had become necessary to begin selling off items of value. They were not destitute, not yet, but she feared that someday it might come to...
No. No. She must not think like that. She had to believe that better days were ahead.
Elsewhere in the castle, the morning ritual had begun as well. Maura heard her father's boots cross the floor in his room at the end of the hall. Slipping into her petticoats and gown, she heard Murdoch's heavy footfalls on the stairs. More creaks there than she could count, she decided.
A heavy door opened, then closed. Another creak. Maura stifled a sigh and turned. As always, Jen's timing was impeccable.
The shorter woman gave a curtsy, as much as her portly form would allow. "Good morning to you, milady."
"Milady? What?" Maura teased. "What misdeed have I done that I have lost your good graces?"
The older woman shook her head. It was a long moment before she lifted her head. Maura stared. Her eyes seemed overly bright. Was she . . .
"Jen. Jen, what is this? Why these tears?" Maura grabbed her hands and pulled her into her room. "Jen, tell me! What's wrong?"
"Nothing is wrong." Jen spoke strongly, then her tone wavered. "It's just that...well, you are a lady, Maura, a most beautiful one at that."
Maura was still stunned, taken aback at the tears Jen couldn't quite hide, the unsteadiness of her tone that she couldn't control. She scoured her mind but couldn't recall ever seeing Jen cry before. Not even when both her sons had left for America, and she and Murdoch knew they'd likely never see them again.
"Jen," she whispered, and all at once there was a huge lump in her throat.
"You've grown up before I even knew it. And I...I thought you should know. I oft tend to see you as a child. But you're a lady," Jen said again. "So much a lady and so beautiful you bring tears to my eyes. Soon, Maura, some dashingly handsome young man will appear and take you away as his bride. I'll miss you, Maura. I'll miss you so." Trying desperately to smile, she smoothed one velvety black curl that lay on Maura's shoulder.
Touched beyond words, Maura reached out, wrapped her arms around Jen's sturdy form and hugged her tight. After the death of her mother, her father had never remarried, and Jen, the woman who raised her, was the only motherly figure she'd ever known. She had comforted her, tended her scrapes...and oh, there were many!...and scolded her soundly when she was into mischief. Why, both Jen and Murdoch had done so. They were more than servants. Much more.
They were her family, as much as her father.
For a long time they stood that way, clinging to each other. In the back of Maura's mind was that same sensation as when she woke . . . that something was different. Yet still it eluded her.Bride of a Wicked Scotsman
. Copyright © by Samantha James. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.