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Waving her hands around her head in a futile attempt to bat the midges away, Lotty paused for breath at the crest of the track. Below her, an austere granite house was planted between a forbidding sweep of hillside and a loch so still it mirrored the clouds and the trees clustered along the water's edge.
Loch Mhoraigh House. It looked isolated and unfriendly and, according to all reports in the village, its owner was the same.
'He's the worst boss I've ever had.' Gary had been drowning his sorrows in the Mhoraigh Hotel bar all afternoon and his words were more than a little slurred. 'Not a smile, not a good morning, just straight to work! I told him if I'd wanted to work in a labour camp, I'd have signed up for one. It's not as if he's paying more than slave wages either, and he won't get anyone else. I told him what he could do with his job!'
'Quite right too.' Elsie, the barmaid, polished glasses vindictively and warned Lotty against making the trek out to Loch Mhoraigh House. 'We don't want Corran McKenna around here. The Mhoraigh estate should have gone to his brother, we all know that,' she said, hinting darkly at some family feud that Lotty didn't quite follow. 'Nobody from the village will work for him. You go on up to Fort William,' she told Lotty. 'You'll find a job there.'
But Lotty couldn't afford to go any further. Without her purse, she was penniless, and when you needed money, you got yourself a job, right?
Or so she had heard. The truth was that until an hour earlier, when she had realised that her purse was missing, Lotty had never in her life had to think about money at all.
Now she did.
It was Lotty's first challenge, and she was determined to rise to it. Her life was so luxurious, so protected. She understood why, of course, but it meant that she had never once been tested and, until you were, how did you know who you were and what you were made of? That was what these few short weeks were all about. Was there any more to Her Serene Highness Princess Charlotte of Montluce than the stylish clothes and the gracious smile that were all the rest of the world saw?
Lotty needed to know that more than anyone.
Here was her first chance to find out. When you didn't have any money, you had to earn some. Lotty set her slim shoulders and hoisted her rucksack onto her back. If everyone else could do it, she could too.
Three miles later, she was very tired, tormented by midges and, looking doubtfully down at the unwelcoming house, it occurred to Lotty, belatedly, that she could be making a terrible mistake. Loch Mhoraigh House was very remote, and Corran McKenna lived alone out here. Was it safe to knock on his door and ask if he could give her a job? What if Elsie had been right, and he was a man who couldn't be trusted? Elsie's dislike of him seemed to be based on the fact that he wasn't a real Scot, and she had implied that he had acquired the estate under false pretences.
It wasn't as if she didn't have a choice, Lotty knew that. One phone call, and a close protection team would be on its way within minutes. a helicopter would swoop down and scoop her up, and take her back to the palace in Montluce. There would be no midges there, no money worries, no need to put herself at risk. There would just be her grandmother to face, and the knowledge of her own uselessness. She would be the princess who ran away and couldn't last a week on her own.
Lotty grimaced at the thought of the humiliation. Three months, she had agreed with Philippe and Caro. Three months to disappear, to be anonymous, to see for herself what she was made of. She couldn't give up at the first difficulty, and slink home with her tail between her legs.
She was a princess of Montluce, Lotty reminded herself, and her chin lifted. Her family hadn't kept an iron grip on the country since the days of Charlemagne by giving up the moment the going got tough. She had been raised on the stories of the pride and courage that had kept Montluce independent for so long: Leopold Longsword, Princess Agathe who had been married off to a German prince nearly fifty years her senior in order to keep the succession safe, and of course the legendary Raoul the Wolf.
They had faced far greater challenges than Lotty. All she had to do was find herself a job. Was she going to be the first of the Montvivennes to accept defeat?
No, Lotty vowed, she wasn't.
Lotty adjusted her rucksack more comfortably on her back, and set off down the rough track towards Loch Mhoraigh House.
The house loomed grey and massive as Lotty trudged wearily up to the front door. An air of neglect clung to everything. Weeds were growing in what had once been an impressive gravel drive and the windows were cold and cheerless. It was very quiet. No lights, no music, no sign of anyone living there. Only the crows wheeling above the Scots pines and the cry of some bird down by the loch.
Lotty hesitated, looking at the oldfashioned bell. What if Corran McKenna wasn't there? She wasn't sure her feet could take her back up that hill.
But what if he was? Lotty chewed her bottom lip uncertainly. She had never had to persuade anyone to give her a job before. She'd never really had to persuade anyone to do anything. Normally people fell over themselves to give her whatever she wanted. She led a charmed and privileged existence, Lotty knew, but it made it a lot harder to prove that she was a worthy successor to all those doughty ancestors who had fought and negotiated and bargained and married to keep Montluce free.
They wouldn't have been deterred by a simple no, and neither would she.
For these few weeks, she had abandoned her title and her household. There was no one to arrange things for her, no one to make sure she got exactly what she wanted.
She was going to have to do this for herself.
Taking a deep breath, Lotty pressed the bell.
She could hear it clanging inside the house somewhere. Immediately, a furious barking erupted. It sounded as if there was a whole pack of dogs in there, and instinctively Lotty took a step back. There was a sharp command and the dogs subsided, except for a highpitched yapping that continued until it was suddenly stifled as a door was shut firmly on it.
A few moments later, the front door was jerked open.
A tall, toughlooking man, as forbidding as the hills behind the house, stood there. He was younger than Lotty had expected, with dark, uncompromising features and a stern mouth, and his eyes were a pale, uncanny blue.
'I've ccome about the job,' said Lotty, cursing the stammer that still resurfaced at times when she was nervous. Raoul the Wolf wouldn't have stammered, she was sure.
His fierce brows snapped together. 'Job? What job?'
'I heard in the hotel that you needed help restoring some cottages to let.'
'News travels fast or did Gary stop at the bar on his way back to Glasgow?' Corran added with a sardonic look.
Lotty brushed at the midges that clustered at her ears. Raoul the Wolf wouldn't have put up with being left on the doorstep either, but she could hardly insist that he invite her inside. She concentrated on sounding reasonable instead. 'He said you didn't have anyone else and that you'd be stuck without anyone to work for you.'
'And did he also say that it was the worst job he'd ever done, not to mention being the worst paid, and having the worst boss?'
'Something like that.'
'And yet you want to work for me?'
'I'm desperate,' said Lotty.
The pale eyes inspected her. Lotty had never been the subject of that kind of unnerving scrutiny before and, in spite of herself, she stiffened. No one in Montluce would dare to look at her like that.
'Forgive me for saying so, but you don't look desperate,' said Corran McKenna. He nodded at the high tech walking trousers and microfleece she'd bought in Glasgow only four days earlier. 'Those clothes you're wearing are brand new, and the labels tell me they weren't cheap. Besides,' he said, 'you're not suitable for the job.'
'You're not a man, for a start.'
'That's not a good enough reason,' said Lotty, who might not want to rely on her royal status to protect her, but didn't have to like his dismissive tone. 'I think you'll find there's such a thing as sex discrimination.'
'And I think you'll find I don't give a toss,' said Corran. 'I need someone strong enough to do physical work, not someone whose most strenuous activity is probably unscrewing her mascara.'
Lotty's eyes sparked with temper. All at once she could feel her celebrated ancestors ranging at her back.
'I'm not wearing mascara,' she said coldly, 'and I'm stronger than I look.'
For answer, Corran McKenna reached out and took her hands, turning them over as if they were parcels so that he could inspect them. His fingers were long and blunt, and they looked huge holding her small hands. He ran his thumbs over her palms and Lotty burned at the casualness of his touch.
'Please don't try and tell me that you've ever done a day's rough work in your life,' he said.
'That doesn't mean I can't start now.' Lotty tugged her hands free. 'Please,' she said, trying to ignore the way her palms were still tingling. If she looked down, she was sure she would be able to see the impression of his fingertips seared onto her skin. 'I really need this job.'
'I really need someone suitable,' said Corran. 'I'm sorry, but the answer is still no. And don't bother looking at me like that with those big eyes,' he added crisply. 'I'm immune.'
Her jaw actually dropped. 'I'm not looking at you like like anything!'
She did astounded very well, but Corran found it hard to believe that she could really be unaware of the power of those luminous grey eyes. They were extraordinarily beautiful, the colour of soft summer mist, and fringed with long black lashes that did indeed appear to be natural when he looked closely.
The kind of eyes that got a man into trouble. Big trouble.
She was very pretty, slender and fineboned, and she wore her trekking gear with an elegance that sat oddly with the short, garish red hair. A soft scarf at her throat added a subtle sophistication to her look.
Corran had the best of reasons for distrusting sophistication.
Frowning, he looked behind her for a car, but the overgrown gravel drive was empty. 'How did you get here?'
'I walked from the hotel,' she said, eyeing him warily.
'It didn't occur to you to ring beforehand?' he asked, exasperated. 'It would have saved you a pointless walk.'
'My phone doesn't work here,' she said.
'If it's a mobile, it won't. That's why we still have landlines,' he explained as if to a child.
She sounded disconcerted. Corran could almost swear she had never used an ordinary telephone in her life. Maybe she hadn't. Privilege was written in every line of her face, in the tilt of her chin, and cheekbones like that only came from generations of aristocratic inbreeding.
He hardened his heart against the pleading in those huge grey eyes. Desperate? She was probably down to her last hundred thousand.
'Oh, well.I like to walk,' she said, recovering.
'You look ready to drop,' Corran told her frankly. 'How far have you walked today?'
Great. Sixteen miles, and he was supposed to let her walk back to the hotel? Corran sighed in exasperation as he faced up to the inevitable. 'What's your name?'
'Lotty,' she said. A moment of hesitation. 'Lotty Mount.'
Now why didn't he believe her? 'All right, Lotty, you wait there. I'll get my keys.'
Her face lit up. 'You're going to let me stay?'
'No,' said Corran, ignoring the disturbing kick of his pulse. 'I'm going to drive you back to the Mhoraigh Hotel.'
She looked at him in dismay as she waved at the midges. 'I don't want to go back there!'
'Frankly, I don't care what you want,' he said, irritated that he had actually started to feel guilty there for a moment, irritated even more by the fact that his pulse still hadn't quite settled. I want you off my property. There's no way you can walk back to the hotel and my reputation's bad enough round here without you collapsing halfway.'
'I'm not going to collapse,' she protested. 'And I've no intention of getting in a car with you,' she added as an afterthought.
'It's a bit late to start having scruples, having walked all the way out here,' Corran pointed out. 'There's just me and the dogs.'
'Well, anyway, I'd rather walk back,' Lotty said stiffly. 'It's a nice evening.'
Corran glanced up at the sky. As so often in Scotland, the day had started murky, but cleared in the afternoon, and now, at almost seven, only a few wispy clouds lurked low on the horizon. At this time of year it wouldn't get dark for hours yet. The hills were a soft blue, the water still and silver, the air almost golden. Lotty was right. It was a fine evening.
But there was not a breath of air to riffle the surface of the loch, which meant no breeze to blow the curse of the Highlands away.
'The midges will eat you alive,' he said, watching her slap at her neck below her ear. 'If they haven't already.'
'I'll be fine.' She lifted her chin. 'I'd rather walk,' she added and bent to heave the rucksack onto her back. Corran saw her wince at the weight of it on her shoulders, and he scowled.
'Don't be ridiculous, woman,' he said irritably. 'You can't walk all the way back if you've already done sixteen miles today.' He pointed a finger at her. 'Stay there. I'm going to get my car keys.'
He was gone less than two minutes, but by the time he came back Lotty was already toiling up the track.
'Fine!' he shouted after her. 'Be stubborn! Just don't collapse on my land!'
'I won't,' she called over her shoulder. Frustrated, Corran stood at the door and watched the slight figure. Her head was held high, but he could tell what an effort it was, and he swore again.
What was she thinking, hiking three miles to a strange house just on the off chance of a job? It wasn't safe. He could be anybody.
Corran glowered. He had enough problems of his own without worrying about Lotty, if that really was her name, but he watched her with a frown in his eyes until she had rounded the bend. He would give her half an hour or so and then go and see how far she had got. She would have proved her point by then, and would no doubt be more than grateful for a lift.
But when he drove along the track later, there was no sign of her. He went all the way to Mhoraigh, although he didn't go inside the hotel. The locals had made it quite clear what they thought of him, and if she had made it that far, she was perfectly safe.
The girl wasn't his responsibility, anyway. Putting the Land Rover into a three point turn, Corran headed back to Loch Mhoraigh House and told himself he wasn't going to think any more about her.