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The Carrick Estate, Dumfries and Galloway
Niniver leaned low over Oswald's neck and let the big bay gelding run. The wind of their passage whipped over her cheeks and tore tendrils of hair loose from the knot on the top of her head. She didn't care; she just wanted to fly before the wind and forget about everything else.
The thunderous pounding of Oswald's heavy hoofs, the bunch and release of the horse's powerful muscles, filled her mindand pushed out the frustrations that had threatened to overwhelm her. While she raced over the fields, she had no room in her head to dwell on the irritations, annoyances, petty nuisances, and simply idiotic behavior that had provoked her to near-fury.
What were they thinking? Were they even thinking? Or were they simply reacting to a situation they didn't know how to interpret?
She'd ridden east from the manor, over the flatter fields, wantingneedingto gallop. But the clan's lands ended at the highway. Ahead, beyond the edge of the fields, the ribbon of macadam glimmered. Normally, she would have slowed at that point, drawn rein, and come around. Not today.
Crouching low, she let Oswald thunder on.
Because today she needed more than just exercise. Today, she needed something akin to an exorcismbefore she lost her temper and blasted her importunate clansmen in a way that would shrivel their manly confidence forever.
Giving Oswald his head, she let the gelding jump the stone wall that marked the boundary of the Carrick estate. Two giant strides later, the horse gathered himself again and flew over the drystone wall on the other side of the road.
Niniver heard a shout from behind herfrom Sean, who, as always, was tagging along as her groombut she pretended not to hear and let Oswald race on toward what had in years past been their favorite valley for a gallop. The horse remembered, as did she, but she hadn't ridden that way since Marcus Cynster had bought the old Hennessy property and made it his.
Usually, she avoided any chance of meeting her neighbor anywhere, much less on his lands.
But not today. Today, her clansmen had pushed her too far. She needed this run, and truly, the chances of meeting Marcus in the narrow valley were slight. She would race to the end, then turn and race back, and he would never know she'd been there.
The long, narrow valley curved and wound deep into the old Hennessy estate. Sinking into the moment, she let herself become one with her horse and galloped wild and free.
But when she reached the rise at the end of the valley, Oswald was tiring. Deeming it wise to let the horse rest before heading back to the manor, she eased up, and let the gelding slowly climb the rise. There was a twisted tree at the top, its canopy casting sufficient shade to provide a pleasant spot out of the afternoon sunshine.
She'd barely noticed the sun was shining until then. With her very pale skin, she had to be wary of freckling, and she wasn't wearing a hat.
Drawing rein in the shade, she remembered that the vantage point allowed her to look down on the old Hennessy farmhouse. Built of faded red bricks with lintels of local stone, the solid house sat nestled comfortably on a shelf of land, with the usual outbuildings neatly arrayed around it. Thin streams of smoke rose from two of the many stone chimneys.
She'd heard that Marcus had renamed the house and estate Bidealeigh.
Her eyes drinking in the peaceful scene, she eased the reins and let Oswald idly crop the coarse grass while she waited for Sean to catch up. He wouldn't say anything when he did; he knew what had sent her off in such a temper.
She'd been the Lady of Clan Carrick for almost a year. The first months of her reign, over late spring and through last summer up until harvesttime, had been intensely busy, not just for her but for all the clan as she and the clan elders uncovered and came to terms with the depredations her brothers had visited on the estate. When she and Ferguson had first sat down with the estate's ledgers, she'd wondered what all the fussall the worryhad been for. Then she'd stumbled on the second set of accountsthe ones Nolan had kept hidden. The ones that had shown the true level of the clan's coffers and also testified to the parlous state of the clan's enterprises.
That had been a sobering time, but under her leadership, the clan elders had rallied, and, together, they'd devised and put into place a plan to resurrect the clan's finances, one designed to get the clan back on its financial feet and heading toward the road to prosperity.
They hadn't made it to that road yet, but at least they were moving in the right direction.
But then autumn had set in and winter had followed, and the snows and storms had kept everyone indoors. The pace of work naturally slowed to a crawl, and suddenly, the younger men who'd been kept busy all summer had time to think.
Too many had chosen to think about her.
Because she was still unwed.
What the dimwits failed to realize was that, as lady of a clanespecially a clan like the Carricks, especially given the straits the clan was inmarriage was not in her cards. She was the only remaining member of the original Carrick line, while the rest of the clan was composed of many families who, through the passage of generations, were now only distantly related by blood, yet they were held together by common purpose and cause and a common share in the clan estate. The clan had elected her to lead them for a very good reasonnamely, that she was the only one all the clan families would agree to follow.
And that was the critical point. The clan followed her.
Any man offering for her hand would expect that he would be entitled through their marriage to assume leadership of the clan.
That wasn't going to happen, because she would never allow it to happen. She'd been entrusted with the position of Lady, and it was incumbent on her to always act for the good of the clanand the good of the clan meant her keeping ultimate control of all clan matters.
After all she'd seen of the weaknesses of men, she wouldn't trust any man with the clan's reins, and there wasn't a man bornor at least not one she might consider marryingwho would agree to take second place to her.
She'd accepted her unmarried state as inevitablemore, as desirable, at least for her. She still had her vow to her father to fulfill, and she would never let that go.
Unfortunately, several men in the clan, her age or older and as yet unwed themselves, had decided to vie for her hand. She'd tried to make clear that her hand wasn't on offer to be claimed, but none of them believed her. Others in the clan, wiser heads, understood, but not the younger hotheads who seemed to have convinced themselves that if they just pushed her harderdid something wildershe'd develop a lasting tendre for them and gladly surrender her hand and the clan.
That afternoon, looking forward to a peaceful ride, she'd walked into the stable yard and had come upon Clement Boswell and Jed Canning violently wrestling in the middle of the yard. Over her. They'd been yelling insults at each other and taking liberties claiming various favors from herfavors she had never granted.
They hadn't seen her in time to shut up.
She'd wanted nothing more than to knock their heads together, to knock some sense into them, but she was a slip of a thing against their tree-trunk forms. Instead, she'd lost her temper and had screeched at them to stop.
They had, eventually, but by then she'd felt like a harridan and a shrew.
She'd clambered onto Oswald's back in a fury with all men.
Luckily, the horse was a gelding.
Sean ambled up on his black and drew rein. He sat his horse alongside her and didn't say a word.
He and the other clan elders understood, but even they were unable to help hernot in this.
She needed a champion, someone to take her side, to do what, as a delicate and fragile-looking female, she was unable to accomplishnamely intimidating her would-be suitors into accepting the truth, respecting her station, and leaving her alone.
She couldn't call on Norris. He'd settled in comfortably to a life as an assistant to a history professor, and had secured a position teaching students at St. Andrews. It was a new and promising start for him. Besides, he wasn't
man enough, old enough, impressive enough for her needs. She needed a man willing and able to fight for her, to defend her position.
Oswald shifted beneath her. Instinctively settling him, her gaze sharpened on the vista before her.
If you ever need help, remember that you can always call
on me. If you are ever in need, please don't hesitatejust ask
It had been nearly two years, but she could still hear Marcus Cynster's deep voice saying those words. She knew he'd meant them.
And she could no longer pretend that she didn't need help. The sort of help he could give.
She'd avoided even seeing him for what still ranked as an excellent reason, yet if she was to do what her clan needed her to do
Gathering her reins, she glanced at Sean. "Wait here. I won't be long."
With that, she tapped Oswald's side and headed down the rise to call on her nemesis.
* * *
Marcus Cynster was peering down the barrel of his shotgun when a sharp rap fell on his front door. He raised his head; his hands still busy cleaning the gun, he waited to hear the heavy footsteps of Flyte, his majordomo, heading for the door.
Then he remembered he was alone in the house. The FlytesMrs. as well as Mr.had gone into Ayr, and Mindy, the maid who helped Mrs. Flyte with the housework, wasn't on duty today.
He set down the shotgun on the canvas he'd spread over the pembroke table in his living room and headed for the door. As he ducked under the archway into the farmhouse's small front foyer, another rap sounded, sharp, distinctly imperious, the heavy knocker plied with inherent command.
Even before he grasped the latch and swung the heavy oak panel wide, he was fairly certain whoever was there wasn't one of his farmers come to report some problem.
He hadn't expected the vision of loveliness that graced his front stoop.
He hadn't seen Niniver Carrick in months, and even then, only from a distance.
Now he was close enough to see the soft color in her porcelain cheeks, the golden glints as the sun touched wayward strands of her pale blond hair, the delicate arches of her brown brows, and the intelligence in the cornflower-blue eyes beneath. The sensual promise in the lush curves of her full, rose-tinted lips was offset by the stubborn determination conveyed by the set of her chin.
He suspected few others registered either her intelligence or her stubbornness, distracted instead by the ethereal beauty, the fairy-princess picture she made. He saw the samethat distracting bodybut he'd also always sensed what lay within.
Once again, he was face to face with that confounding reality, and more than close enough to be reminded why being near her wasn't a wise idea. The attraction between them
he couldn't remember when it hadn't been there. Yet over the last years, intermittent sightings notwithstanding, it had grown.
If what he felt now, simply on setting eyes on her, was any indication, that uncontrollable attraction had only escalated further.
For several silent moments, she stared at him while he stared at her.
He managed to find his voice. "Niniver?"
His implied confusion broke the spell.
"May I come in?"
"Yes. Of course." He stepped back, holding the door as she passed before him in a glide of black velvet riding jacket and brown velvet skirts. Glancing outside, he saw her usual mount, a big bay gelding, securely tied to the hitching post. A frown formed in his mind, although he kept it from his face. Had she been riding alone?
It wasn't his place to ask. He reminded himself of that as he closed the door and followed her. She'd swept straight through into the living room. As he ducked beneath the archway, he saw her pause by the table, inspecting his endeavors. She turned as he crossed the room toward her.
She was petite, while he stood over six feet tall; her head barely reached his shoulder.
Rather than tower over her, he waved her to the pair of armchairs that faced each other across the wide hearth. He sensed rather than saw her approval of the courtesy as she walked on and, with a swish of her heavy skirts, sat.
He followed and sat in the other armchair. His gaze on her face, he tried to imagine what she was doing therewhy, after all these months of no contact, she'd sought him out. When she volunteered nothing, just studied him, as if trying to imagine his likely reaction to some request, he said, "I would offer you some refreshment, but my housekeeper and majordomo have gone shopping. I don't think you'd appreciate my efforts at making tea."
She blinked, slowly, and he saw her absorb the information that she was alone with him in the house. If this was a social call.
She shook her head. "I didn't come for tea. Or any other refreshment."
Definitely not a social call, then. Her big blue eyes still measuring him, she caught her lower lip between her teethsomething he'd noticed she did when uncertain, or cogitating about something that bothered her. Him? Or what had brought her there?
He sat back, attempting to look as unthreateningas encouragingas he could. "So, how can I help you?"
Now she was there, face to face with him, Niniver had second and even third thoughts about the wisdom of her course, but she still needed help. She desperately needed a champion, and there he sat, the perfect man for the task.
With his black locksnot true blue-black but black with an underlying hint of red, the very deepest mahoganyframing his face, one dark lock falling rakishly over his broad forehead, sitting as he was, relaxed and at his ease, his long-fingered hands elegantly disposed on the chair's arms, his muscled horseman's thighs, long, buckskin-clad legs, and top-booted feet arranged in an innately graceful pose, he should have appeared no more dangerous than any London dandy. Instead, a tangible aura that seethed with restrained power, edged with menace, emanated from him.
As a deterrent to her importuning suitors, she couldn't imagine finding better.
Squelching all caution, she met his dark blue gazea midnight blue so dark it was difficult if not impossible to guess his thoughts. "Remember that promise you made to me up at the lookout?"
He blinked, dense black lashes briefly screening his eyes before they rose again, and he pinned her with his gaze. "That if you needed help, you could count on methat you only needed to ask?"
She noddedonce, decisively. "Yes. That." She paused to marshal her words. "I need help with a particular problem, and I thinkI believethat you are the most appropriate person to ask for assistancethe person most likely to be able to help me resolve the issue."
He was now considering her exactly as she'd previously considered him. "And your particular problem is?"
"Men." The word slipped out before she'd thought. She grimaced and forged on, "Specific mennamely men of the clan who assume I must be looking for a husband, and who are putting themselves forward overenthusiastically." She couldn't hide her irritation; it underscored her tone.
To her surprise, Marcus
stilled. There was no other word for it. His gaze remained on herhe was still looking at heryet she got the distinct impression he was seeing something else. That he was viewing something beyond her.
He barely seemed to breathe.
But then he blinked, and he seemed to draw back, pull back. He hesitated, then asked, "How
enthusiastic have they been?"
His voice had lowered, deepened. For an instant, she wondered if she was doing the right thing in setting him on her poor unsuspecting clansmen. Then she remembered the scene in the stable yard. She tipped up her chin. "I suppose you could say that, each in their own way, they've been trying to woo me, but they keep tripping over each other, and then they clash. But even worse, they egg each other on to ever more ridiculous exploits, ones that are harder and harder for me to