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Och, me lassies! The fun ye'll have when ye've a man of yer own to torment!
- Old Woman Nora from Loch Lomond to her three wee granddaughters one cold evening
You lost everything?" Sophia MacFarlane's voice cracked on the last word.
Robert MacFarlane, known as "Red" to his daughter and his gambling companions, winced. "Aye, lass. I -- I lost it all."
Sophia sank into her chair, her face ashen. "Even...even the house?"
Red swallowed with difficulty. He'd always thought it best to get bad news out fast, but looking at his daughter's quivering bottom lip, he questioned his own advice.
Her wide, light blue eyes and thick lashes were wet with unshed tears. "But how? You were to go to Edinburgh and sell Mother's diamonds for the new roof. How did you end up in a game of chance?"
"I stopped in Stirling, though now I wish to God I hadn't. I'd heard on the road that there was to be a race between the fastest horses in England. At first, I just thought to watch, but Andrew MacGregor was there, and -- "
Sophia's lips twisted. "MacGregor has always been trouble."
"Psht. 'Tis my own bloody fault and no one else's. Lass, I only thought to help you -- "
"Help me? By losing the house that I love?"
"I didn't plan it that way!" Distress poured through his voice. "I thought if I could win just once, I could pay for the repairs on the roof, and you wouldn't be forced to sell your mother's diamond set." His brow lowered. "I didn't like the idea of selling it to begin with."
She pressed her fists to her forehead. "I told you I didn't care a feather for the diamonds. I only wanted the roof fixed!"
He set his jaw. "Beatrice wished you to wear those diamonds when you married, just as she wore them when I married her."
Sophia's eyes flashed. "Once the roof began to leak, Mama would have been the first to say the diamonds had to go."
Red reluctantly admitted to himself that Sophie was right. Except when she was caught up in a challenge, Beatrice had been the pinnacle of solid common sense -- despite growing up in one of the largest manor houses in Scotland, surrounded by servants with nothing to do but spoil her rotten and do her thinking for her.
But Beatrice was not the sort of woman to let others do for her what she could easily do for herself. She was strong and independent, character traits her own father had deplored.
Every time she had attempted to act on her own, her father would furiously clamp down on her freedoms. Back and forth the two went -- until, at the tender age of seventeen, Beatrice had kicked off the family traces and eloped with an unknown adventurer named Robert MacFarlane.
It had been the greatest stroke of luck Red had ever experienced, and it had changed him forever. Life before Beatrice was exciting, but life with Beatrice was exciting and warm and damned near perfect. She made every inn, no matter how sordid and cold, feel like home. In return, Red filled her life with excitement and romance and love. Not once had either of them regretted their impulsive marriage.
Red wished for the millionth time that Beatrice were still with him today. "Sophie, I just couldn't let your mama's diamonds go without a fight. I meant no harm, but now...I've lost it all." He swiped at his eyes angrily. "But I'll find a way to fix this, see if I don't!"
Sophia's expression softened as she took his hand between hers. "We'll just have to think of a way out of this mess." She sat silently, her brows knitted.
Red looked at her hopefully. If anyone could think of a way out of this mess, it was Sophie. She'd do it; he knew she would. He watched her face, noting how the sun gleamed through the curtains to gild her already golden curls. The light warmed her skin to cream and traced the delicate line of her heartÂ-Âshaped face. With her thick lashes, sparkling eyes, and perfect nose, it was hard to imagine a more beautiful woman.
But her obvious beauty and delicate appearance were misleading; from early on, Sophie had her parents' rapacious appetite for excitement. The three had followed the game and traveled from inn to inn across all of Europe without complaint, delighting in each new location, every leaky inn. While Red had plied his trade, Beatrice had made their daughter's life as normal as possible, serving as governess, tutor, and mother all in one.
Beatrice had kept them all safe and sane, laughing at muddy roads and mocking illÂ-Âtempered innkeepers until Sophie and Red would dissolve into laughter. She made certain their clothes were dry and clean, their rooms organized and welcoming. Red's and Sophie's entire world had revolved around merry, neverÂ-Âweary Beatrice -- which was why her unexpected death years ago had been so devastating.
Sophie was so like Beatrice, it made Red's heart ache. Though society might say a lass of twentyÂ-Âseven was firmly on the shelf, any man who saw her gold and pink loveliness would think otherwise. While she carried herself with a mature air that clearly told her years, she didn't look a day over eighteen.
Sophia's expression grew graver, and her tender lips pursed as she tapped a slender finger on her chin.
Red silently cursed his friend MacGregor, cursed the ill luck of the cards, and especially cursed the circumstances that had made him hope.
Hope for most people was a good thing, something to carry them through a difficult time. Hope for a gambler was ruin.
One should never wager what one couldn't afford to lose. Yet in the heat of this game, his heart had swelled with insidious hope at the chance to fix things for his Sophie. Of course he'd lost; gambling was not a game to be based on feelings. He, of all men, knew that. For years, he and his lovely Beatrice had made their livelihood on his ability to turn the cards and play on other men's hopes.
How she would have scolded him for taking chances with the only two things she'd left their daughter. It had been her fondest wish that their Sophie should have a proper home. So she'd tucked away the deed to a house that had been tossed onto a table by a desperate nobleman during one of Red's games and had refused to part with it even when times were lean.
Unfortunately, fortune was a fickle lady and poor Beatrice didn't live to see the house she'd guarded for her daughter.
After Beatrice's death, Red and Sophia had left Italy and traveled to Scotland to take possession of the house on the hill. They'd arrived on a chilled, blustery day, when clouds gathered over the tall, square stone house, the closed doors and windows cold and unwelcoming, a heavy growth of vines almost hiding it from view.
Sophia had immediately set about making the house into MacFarlane House. Together, they scrubbed and polished, hammered and nailed, fixed and cleaned, until the place was something to behold. Slowly, as they worked, their hearts began to heal, and the house became a real home. Thus it had been for eleven years.
Sophia straightened her shoulders with a determined air, and Red looked at her hopefully.
"We can't just sit back and let a stranger take our home." Her gaze flickered past him to encompass the sitting room. "I couldn't bear to see such a thing."
Red followed her gaze. The wood paneling gleamed softly, and thick Oriental rugs carpeted the room, softening the glossy wood floors. An intricate carving decorated the fireplace, where a large mantelpiece held a carved ormolu clock and a pair of charming brass and crystal candelabras. Several decorative chairs sat before the fireplace, simple yet elegant, covered with red and gold striped velvet and flanked by glossy Chippendale side tables. In one corner stood a small escritoire carved in the French fashion, flanked by intricately carved curio cabinets holding an assortment of china. Sunlight streamed past red velvet curtains and warmed the wood paneling, suffusing the chamber with the rich scents of beeswax and lemon.
With a small fire to offset the spring chill, it was difficult to imagine a more welcoming and beautiful room.
But the centerpiece of it all was sitting in the chair opposite him now: his beautiful daughter. Sophie, with her gold hair, heartÂ-Âshaped face, just like her mother. The only similarity between Sophie and her father was their unusual eyes, a liquid pale blue fringed with a wealth of curling dark brown lashes.
As a youth, tough and streetÂÂwise Red had gotten into many a fight with larger lads who had made the error of laughing at the length of his lashes. Red's fists had been hard even at the young age of eight, so few made the mistake of laughing twice. He wished he could solve his current difficulties so easily. It would take a keener head than his to get out of their current difficulties. "If anyone can find a way out of this mess, it'd be you," Red said stoutly.
Sophia smiled, her heart buoyed by her father's obvious belief in her abilities. She glanced out the window to where the gentle breeze rustled among the roses in the garden. The new path wound through the pink, red, yellow, and lavender flowers to the swaying green trees beyond, passing the white stone fountain where a pink marble angel perched on the edge of a large basin, its fingers forever trailing in the splashing water. Soon someone else would be standing here, taking solace in the garden, instead of her.
The thought ignited her anger. How dare someone sit in her garden without her permission, especially after all of the work she'd done! There had to be a way...Sophia drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. How could they turn this horrid tide of ill fortune? They had no money and less credit. She didn't know anyone who could help, either; their only wealthy acquaintance was the squire and his fortune was tied up in his own estate, as it should be.
No, if they wished to win back their house, then -- She froze, her mind whirling at a sudden thought. "We have neither the money nor the credit to buy back the house, but we do have talent and luck. Since the house was lost in a game, I'll simply win it back in one."
"Aye. No one would think I could play cards as well as you."
"That's true," Red said slowly. When she was young, he'd taught her how to palm a card, deal from the bottom of the deck, mark the face cards with her hairpin -- a thousand little tricks that, when put together, meant that one rarely lost.
But the real trick was her brain. Knowing when to play which card, remembering who held what -- those were the talents that made a player great, and Sophie had mastered them all by the time she was twelve.
He'd also taught her about the mindÂ-Âset of the game, of how winning could mean one thing to one person and something entirely different to another; how to read a man and tell if he was desperate and thus close to making an error; and how wanting something very badly could distract a person until he'd lost it all.
Red rubbed his chin. "It might work, lass, but it could prove dangerous. Men like Dougal MacLean may look as soft as a goose's backside, but they're cold and hard if they think they've been cheated. Your mother wouldn't have liked the thought of your playing a game for real stakes, either."
Sophia's heart tightened. She couldn't let MacFarlane House go. It was all she had left of Mama.
She pushed the emotion away, her voice hardening. "What do you know of this man?"
"Dougal MacLean? Not much. Mostly rumor." Red ran a hand through his hair. Once a bright red, now it was threaded with white and had faded to auburn. "He is known as a rake and handsome as the day is long. You'd need to keep your wits about you."
"I've met handsome men before," Sophia said confidently.
Red didn't look convinced. "Aye, but there's something different about this one. And he's a proud man; his whole family is soaked with it." Red pursed his lips. "I'd say he has a bit of a temper, too."
"How do you know?"
"The earl of Stirling made some very unflattering comments about one of MacLean's brothers during the game, and I saw the anger in his eyes."
"Did he say anything?"
"No, for there was a sudden flash of lightning, and a gust of wind blew the shutters wide open, and we were all scrambling about, trying to close the window and gather the cards." Red chuckled a bit. "The earl tried to blame that on MacLean. Seems there's a rumor the MacLean family is cursed and when they lose their temper, storms gather."
Sophia smiled faintly. "Do you know anything else about MacLean?"
Red's eyes narrowed. "He seemed a mite taken with his position. He travels in a coach and eight, and a prettier string of horses you'd be hard pressed to find."
That was promising. A vain man could be led. "Do you think he'll come here?"
"He said he wished to give the house to his nephew or such and would come see it beforehand."
She nodded. "Good. Do you remember anything else?"
Red made a face. "He dresses like a Frenchman, all lace cuffs and whatnot."
Sophia curled her lip. "A dandy."
"YesÂ€¯.Â€¯.Â€¯. and no. There's more to him than his trappings. He's quick, and blasted good at covering his emotions, which is how he bested me. You'll need to be ready to meet this man, lassie," Red warned. "You've not played cards in a while, and he's uncommon intelligent."
"Then we will practice every day until he arrives."
"It will be a week, at least. The races won't be over until then." Red regarded Sophia. "You'll need a new gown or two, as well."
She looked down at her morning gown of pink muslin. "Why?"
"A man will wager more if he thinks you don't need his blunt."
"Very well. I will order some new gowns from the seamstress in the village. She just made a trousseau for the baron's daughter. I'll also need some paste jewels -- he'll never be close enough to know the difference. Perhaps I'll win back both the jewels and the deed."
"It's worth a try." Red looked around the room, a twisted smile on his lips. "The house may be a problem. You've done too good a job with her; she's beautiful. I doubt MacLean will wish to part with her once he sees her."
Sophia frowned. "True. Once he sees it, he'll never want to wager it. I wish -- " An idea popped into her head, one so dazzlingly brilliant that it froze her mind for a full moment.
"Sophie?" Red's voice broke through her thoughts.
"Do you think it will be an entire week before MacLean arrives to view" -- she couldn't get the word his through her lips -- "the house?"
"At least. Maybe longer if he stays after the races for the revelries."
Then it could work! She would need help, but with enough willing and able hands, she could --
"Sophie?" A crease rested deep on Red's brow. "I don't like that look. What are you thinking?"
She stood and rubbed her hands together. "I know exactly how to make MacLean wish to be rid of our house. We'll just undo all of the work."
She waved a hand, too busy thinking to explain more. "Leave it to me. I will see to it all."
"Whatever 'tis you're planning, have a care. If MacLean decides you are out to trick him, he'll not rest 'til he's gained blood for blood."
"I'll be cautious," she replied absently, her mind whirling with plans.
"No, you won't. You've too much of your mother in you. Once she set her mind to a path, she wouldn't be turned, come hell or high water."
Sophia grinned. "Determination is a good thing."
"That depends on the cost, lass."
Sensing his worry, Sophia changed the subject by asking Red about the specific plays in the game that had lost the house. Eager to absolve himself, he described the hands he'd been dealt and how he'd been fooled into wagering everything.
Sophia listened with half an ear. Once she was done with her beloved house, the foppish MacLean would beg someone to take it from him. No softÂ-Âskinned, laceÂ-Âcovered, dandified profligate would ever take this house and make it his.
Copyright © 2008 by Karen Hawkins