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Why had she ever thought returning to Scotland a good idea? Lady Selina Albright eyed the wrought-iron candelabra suspended from ancient oak beams and the grey stone walls covered with ragged tapestries, great swords and rusting pikes, and suppressed the urge to flee.
Having run from two eminently eligible bridegrooms, one more would put her beyond the pale. Not even her father's considerable influence would prevent her from being gazetted a jilt.
And besides, this one was her choice. Finally.
All around her, dark-coated gentlemen and sumptuously gowned women, their jewels flashing with every movement, filled Carrick Castle's medieval banqueting hall.
'I hadn't expected it to be such a squeeze,' observed Chrissie, Lady Albright, her father's wife of only a year and the reason Selina had agreed to this trip.
Not that she would ever have been so unkind as to tell Chrissie the truth.
'He must have invited every member of the Scottish nobility,' Selina said. 'At any moment I expect to see Banquo's ghost or three witches hunched over a cauldron.' A shiver ran down her spine. 'I should have waited in London for the end of Algernon's tour of duty.'
She glanced across the huge chamber to where Lieutenant the Right Honourable Algernon Dunstan, conversed with another officer in front of the enormous hearth decorated with stag antlers. Fair-haired and slender, he looked dashing in his red militia uniform. Not quite the brilliant catch her father had expected, but he was a young man of good family with a kindly disposition. The kind of man who would make a pleasant husband.
He caught her eyeing him and bowed.
She inclined her head and smiled. He was the reason she was here: to bring him up to the mark and get her out of her father's house, where she felt decidedly underfoot.
'I think it is all very romantic,' Chrissie said, looking around her with wide-eyed appreciation. 'I feel as if I have been transported between the covers of Waverly. Is Dunross Keep equally enchanting?'
'Dunross is about as romantic as an open boat on the North Sea in winter.' It was hard to imagine she'd fallen in love with the keep when she first saw it some ten years before. She'd been a foolish impressionable child, she supposed. 'Nowhere near as grand as this and as cold and damp in summer as it is no doubt freezing in winter. Did Father tell you the local people hate us because we are English? They think of us as usurpers, you know.' For some obscure reason her father, the lord of the manor, wished to visit there nextsomething he had not told her before they left London and the real reason she was regretting her agreement to accompany him. Dun-ross was the last place in the world she wished to visit.
'Oh, my word,' Chrissie gasped. 'Who is that?'
Selina followed the direction of her gaze.
A hard thump of her heart against her ribs was a painful recognition of the tall man in Highland dress framed within the stone arched entry. Ian Gilvry. The self-proclaimed Laird of Dunross.
The reason she hated Scotland. A knot formed in her stomach and made it hard to breathe as her gaze took him in.
He was not the gangling youth she remembered, though she would have known him anywhere. He was virile and brawny and, despite his green-and-red kilt, exceedingly male.
His features were far too harsh and dark to be called handsome in the drawing rooms of London, and the frill of white lace at his wrists and throat did nothing to soften his aura of danger. The raw vitality he exuded drew and held every female eye in the room. Including her own.
He was the last man she had expected or wanted to see at Lord Carrick's drum. Hopefully, he wasn't here to make trouble.
His gaze swept the room and, to her chagrin, her heart raced as she waited for some acknowledgement of her presence in his sky-blue eyes. When his gaze reached her and halted, she couldn't breathe. Her heart tumbled over.
An expression of horror flickered across his face, then his gaze moved on. The sting of rejection lashed her anew. Ridiculous. She cared not one whit for Ian Gilvry's opinion. He might have been the first man, or rather boy, to kiss her, but it had been a clumsy attempt and not worth thinking about. Especially not when their families were at daggers drawn.
'Who is he?' Chrissie whispered.
'Ian Gilvry of Dunross,' she murmured. No further explanations were needed.
Chrissie looked down her nose. 'That is Ian Gilvry? What is he doing here? I thought only the real nobility were invited.'
Selina winced at the sudden urge to protest the scornful tone. 'He is a distant cousin to Lord Carrick. On his mother's side.'
'That costume is positively indecent in polite company.' Chrissie sniffed, clearly reflecting her husband's opinion of all things Gilvry. On anyone else Chrissie would have declared it romantic. 'He looks positively barbaric.'
He did. Deliciously so.
Oh, that was not the way she should be thinking about a man who held her and her family in contempt.
'It is the traditional garb of the Highlands.'
'I am surprised you would defend him,' Chrissie said with a little toss of her head.
She felt herself colour. 'I am stating a fact.' When Chrissie stared at her with raised brows, she realised she'd spoken more sharply than she intended. She shrugged.
From the corner of her eye, she watched Ian stroll across the room to greet a friend with a smile that lit his face and transformed him from stern to charming.
What, was she still fooled by his smile? Hardly. She didn't give tuppence for Ian Gilvry or his brothers. They were proud, arrogant men who would stop at nothing to put her father off land they considered their own.
As if sensing her watching, he glanced her way. Their gazes clashed for no more than a second. Heat flooded her cheeks. She swiftly turned away.
'Look, Sel,' Chrissie said, 'there is Lady Carrick.
Your father particularly asked me to get to know her better and this is the first time she has not been surrounded by crowds of people. Will you be all right here by yourself?'
Selina swallowed a sharp retort. Chrissie was being her usual sweet self and she had promised herself she would vanquish her annoyance at the young woman's attempt to play the mother. 'I am perfectly content to remain here and await your return.' She gave an airy wave of her fan and hoped Chrissie would not see the effort it cost her not to show her impatience.
Chrissie bustled away with a wifely determination that brought a genuine smile to Selina's lips and a warm feeling to her chilly heart. She hadn't expected to like her father's new wife, but they rubbed along quite well, most of the time.
Unfortunately, Chrissie's unflagging solicitude and her unfailing kindness made Selina feel increasingly like a guest in her father's house. It had become a source of increasing irritation since her accident had kept her confined to the house for so many months. With time for reflection, she had decided it really was time she found her own place in the world. And the only option available was to become a wife.
Unintentionally, her gaze slid once again in Ian's direction. He seemed to be circling the room, going from group to group, drawing closer to where she sat by the minute. Her heart picked up speed. Her mouth dried. Surely he would not have the unmitigated gall to approach her? She eased her grip on her fan and kept her gaze moving in case someone noticed her interest.
And here came Dunstan to ensure she was all right on her own. He bounded up to her like a puppy who had found his new bone, after misplacing it for a while.
She wasn't sure whether to pat him on the head to keep him happy, or throw him a stick to send him scampering off. Neither was appropriate, of course. Not if she wanted to keep him.
The third son of a powerful earl, he was a perfect match for the daughter of a baron, though at one time she'd been on the brink of landing the rakish heir to an earldom, had even been so bold as to follow him to Lisbon. But when he'd come up to the mark, she'd panicked and run. When it had happened again, with a viscount, she'd been labelled a jilt and become an object of fascination for gentlemen who liked a challenge. Or at least she had until her accident made her an object of pity.
She'd been right to flee that first time, though. Her suitor had later proved himself an intractable husband, according to gossip.
Dunstan was a whole other prospect. He would make the perfect husband. Malleable. Kind. And definitely besotted. She would have no trouble twisting him around her finger. She just wished he'd been stationed at Bath or Brighton instead of the wilds of Scotland. She smiled in welcome as he arrived at her chair.
'May I say how lovely you look this evening?' he said eagerly.
'Thank you, Lieutenant Dunstan, you are too kind.'
His eyes flickered down to her bosom and then up to her face. Desire shone in his eyes as he pressed the back of her gloved hand to his lips.
A public demonstration of possession.
Again the urge to run beat in her blood, but that would be cowardly. She gestured for him to take the chair vacated by Chrissie. 'Lord Carrick's castle is a thing of wonder, don't you think?'
Again her roving gaze fell upon Ian. He was much closer now. Too close. Oh, why was he here of all places? She could not concentrate upon a thing Dunstan was saying. She shifted in her chair, turning to focus all her attention on the man at her side. But she could still feel Ian's presence, like a dark shadow looming in the corner of a room.
She forced a smile at Dunstan, who blinked.
'I think you will like Pater's seat in Surrey,' he said. 'I am to go on leave at the end of the month. I hope you and your father will do us the honour of a visit?'
Perfect. A man only interested in flirtation did not ask a woman to meet his parents. And it seemed he was no more enamoured of Scotland than she. 'We will be delighted, I am sure. And I hope we will see you at Dunross Keep before you depart for England?' It was to be her dowry. Her contribution to a convenient arrangement. He might as well see what he was getting.
'It will be a pleasure since I will have business in the area.'
'Indeed,' he said heavily, his tone full of importance. But since he did not volunteer to say more, she let the matter slide. 'There are a great many people here I don't know,' she said brightly. 'I am sure you know all those of significance. I would be grateful for your insights.' If she'd learned one thing in her years on the town, it was how to make a man feel important.
The rather proud smile as he glanced around the room gave her a pang of guilt, but he seemed to enjoy the opportunity to show off his knowledge.
'The couple talking to your father is the local constable and his wife. Colonel Berwick fought at Waterloo with the Black Watch.'
'A brave man, then.' Selina memorised the soldier's face. A good wife paid attention to those who could aid her husband. And she would be a good wife. She was determined to keep her part of the bargain.
'An unruly Highlander, more like,' Dunstan grumbled. 'They give the regiment no end of trouble.' He was now staring at Ian.
Her blood ran cold. It was as if a chill wind had swept through the room. 'What sort of trouble?'
'Illegal whisky stills. Smuggling.' His gaze narrowed.
If Ian was engaged in smuggling, he was more of a fool than she ever imagined. Without thinking, she noted the way his plaid grazed the tops of his socks as he sauntered with lithe grace to a group of guests not far from her chair.
Her heart hammered so loud she was sure Dunstan must hear it. Would he speak to her? Surely not. What would she say if he did? His words at their last meeting some nine years before had been horrid. Crushing. But more recently he had responded to a written request to call his brother home with a surprising alacrity. For that at least she owed him a debt of gratitude.
Now was not the time, however. With luck, Ian would pass on by.
Luck, as ever, was not her friend.
Annoyance crossed Dunstan's face when Ian paused in front of them. Ever the gentleman though, Dunstan gestured to Selina. 'Ian Gilvry, allow me to introduce you to Lady Selina Albright.'
Ian bowed. 'Lady Selina, it is indeed an honour to once more make your acquaintance.'
The butter-soft burr of his highland brogue made her skin tingle the way the touch of his lips to hers once had. Or was it the feel of his hand on hers and the sensation of warm breath she could not possibly feel through her glove? Or was it merely his acknowledgement of recollection?
Heat flashed in her cheeks. He was the only man who had ever had the power to disturb her equilibrium. Years of careful training stood her in good stead, however, and she gave him her most brilliant smile. 'Why, Mr Gilvry, I hardly recognised you after all these years.'
Bright blue eyes regarded her coldly. His mouth curved in a bitter smile. What did he have to be bitter about? It was her pride she'd ground into the dust by asking for his help for Alice. But the Gilvrys and the Albrights had always been enemies. Perhaps she was reading more into his expression than she should.
'You have also changed a good deal, Lady Selina.'
His tone said he spoke out of mere politeness. Something to say.
Dunstan frowned, then his brow cleared. 'Ah, right. You spent some time at Dunross Keep as a girl. You must have met then.'
'Briefly,' she said.
'Once or twice,' Ian said at the same moment.
She snatched her hand back. 'No rocks in your pockets today, I hope?'
An unwilling smile curved his full lips. 'None today, my lady,' he said smoothly.