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"Andra didn′t tell you about the marriage kilt?" Lady Valery sipped the wickedly strong whiskey and relished the warmth it spread through her aged veins. "My heavens, what did you do to offend? The MacNachtans always drag out that marriage kilt to show everyone, whether they wish it or not."
The fire warmed the study, the candles lit the darkened comers, the clock ticked on the mantel, and Hadden sat, long legs stretched out before him, the very portrait of masculine power and grace.
The very image of offended virility.
Lady Valery hid a grin in her goblet. The boy -- he was thirtyone, but she considered him a boy -- did not take rejection well.
"Andra MacNachtan is unreasonable." He scowled into his goblet. "A black-headed, noodle-brained woman without a care for anyone but herself."
Lady Valery waited, but he said nothing more. He only gulped at his whiskey, his fourth since dinner and three more than the usually temperate drinker ever consumed.
"Yes. Well." She returned to her scheme. "The marriage kilt is exactly your kind of tradition. There′s a ragged old plaid cloth that′s reputed to bring good luck to the newlyweds if it′s wrapped around their shoulder..." She paused artfully for effect. "No, wait, let me think...if they kiss the sporran...no, perhaps it was something about wifely obedience. If I could remember the tale, I would tell you, and you could copy it into your treatise. But I′m an old lady; my memory′s not what it used to be -- "
Hadden lifted his bloodshot blue eyes to glare at her.
Perhaps that was laying it on a little too thick. Hastily, she abandoned that tack and, in a brisk, no-nonsense tone, said, "And I was never interested in that old-fashioned balderdash. I remember the ′good old days′ -- smoking fires, galloping clap, gin slums. No, give me my modem conveniences. You young folks can go poking around and call those days romantic and worthy of note, but I don′t."
"It′s not just your youth I′m recording, Your Grace, much though you would like to believe that."
Surly and sarcastic, she noted, his usual state since his return from Castle MacNachtan almost two months ago.
"It′s a whole way of life. Since Culloden, Scotland has changed. The old ways that have existed since William Wallace and Robert the Bruce are disappearing without a trace." He straightened his shoulders, leaned forward intently. "I want to record those fragile fragments of culture before they are gone forever. If I don′t record them, no one will."
Lady Valery watched him with satisfaction. He′d been this emphatic and enthusiastic almost from the first moment he′d arrived at her Scottish estate, a skinny, frightened nine-year-old. He′d taken to the open spaces and gray mists of the Highlands. He′d grown tall and hearty as he roamed the glens and braes, and he′d discovered in the clans and the ancient ways of life a continuity his own existence lacked.
Not that his sister hadn′t made a home for him -- she had -- but nothing could substitute for two parents and a place to call his own.
Lady Valery had hoped, when she sent him to Castle MacNachtan, he would find his place there.
Instead, he′d come back silent and grumpy, brooding in a manner quite unlike his normal personable self.
Once Lady Valery had diagnosed the malady that vexed him, she had resolved to set all to rights, and her plan, as always, was working perfectly.
"I understand now. You′re tactfully telling me you′re not interested in the MacNachtans′ wedding kilt because it′s not important." She set her goblet down with a thump. "I don′t blame you a bit. It is an obscure legend, and rather absurd, and the MacNachtans are a dying clan. That girl, that Andra, is the last of them as far as I know. Yes, you′re right." She acted as if he had spoken. "If you don′t record their history before that clan fades away, it will be of no consequence."
Hadden′s drink halted halfway to his mouth, and his fingers tightened on the cut-glass sides of his goblet. "Castle MacNachtan is two hard days of riding from here," he muttered.
"That′s true," Lady Valery acknowledged. It had taken her courier two days to get there, one day to search out Andra′s housekeeper and get an answer to her letter, and two days to get back.
"The roads are mud. The crofters are poor, the castle′s disintegrating, and it was none too fine a castle to begin with. And Andra MacNachtan is destitute and proud as the devil in spite of it, and so vain of her honoured Scottish ancestry that she can′t see what′s right before her nose."
Lady Valery smiled at Hadden, knowing she had well and truly set the hook. "So, dear boy, a noodle-brained woman like Andra MacNachtan is of no consequence?"
He stood, over six feet tall, a blond giant, handsome, irresistible, and so bristling with irritation at Lady Valery that he almost forgot his displeasure with Andra. "She damned well shouldn′t be."
"When will you leave?"
"Tomorrow morning. " Standing, he tossed his whiskey into the fire and watched the flames blaze up. "And the tale of this marriage kilt had better be true, Your Grace, for if I go all that way to make a fool of myself, I′ll hop a ship to India and make another fortune, and you′ll not see me for many a long day."
"You′d break an old lady′s heart?"
"Not if she′s a truthful old lady. Now if you will excuse me, Your Grace, I will go pack."
She watched him stride out, dynamic, overbearing, and so virile he made her long to be fifty years younger. "Oh, I am truthful," she murmured to herself "About the marriage kilt, at least." Scottish Brides. Copyright © by Christina Dodd. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.