Argyll, Scotland. July 1832. After a trying few months in Edinburgh, Kiera and her husband and investigative partner, Sebastian Gage, are eager to escape to the Highlands with their three-month-old child. Kiera is overjoyed for her cousin Rye and her detractor-turned-friend Charlotte who are being wed in a private ceremony at the estate of Rye’s great-uncle, the Marquess of Barbreck, in what seems to be the perfect wedding party.
But when Kiera is invited to peruse Barbreck’s extensive art collection, she is disturbed to discover that one of his most priceless paintings seems to be a forgery. The marquess’s furious reaction when she dares to mention it leaves her shaken and the entire house shocked. For it turns out that this is not the first time the word forgery has been uttered in connection with the Barbreck household.
Matters turn more ominous when a maid from a neighboring estate is found murdered where the forged painting hangs. Is her death connected to the forgeries, perhaps a grisly warning of what awaits those who dare to probe deeper? With unknown entities aligned against them, Kiera and Gage are forced to confront the fact that they may have underestimated their opponent. For they are swiftly made to realize that Charlotte’s and Rye’s future happiness is not the only issue at stake, and this stealthy game of cat and mouse could prove to have deadly consequences.
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We know what we are, but know not what we may be.
There was nothing quite like the sight of proper, normally reserved ladies and gentlemen flailing and dashing about a moor. Their natural habitats of stately homes and the theaters and clubs of Edinburgh and London offered little opportunity for them to behave in such a carefree manner, and even less for me to enjoy observing it.
We had all gathered at Barbreck Manor along the northern tip of Loch Craignish to celebrate the wedding of my dear friend Charlotte, Lady Stratford, to my cousin Rye Mallery. Charlotte had endured a tumultuous and difficult first marriage to the late Earl of Stratford. One that ended with him trying to frame her for murder and then attempting to kill her-an effort I had helped foil. And I was pleased to see her find happiness again with my strong and steady cousin.
Though matters with her soon-to-be stepchildren seemed to be progressing less smoothly.
Charlotte darted to the side and flung out her racket in a vain attempt to bat the shuttlecock back toward her fellow players, only to watch it fall to the ground, nearly tripping on her skirts in the process. The look on Rye's daughter's face clearly communicated her disappointment in Charlotte's prowess. The fact that her cousin and Aunt Morven demonstrated such skill didn't help matters.
I empathized with Charlotte, knowing I wouldn't have shone in comparison with my cousin Morven in this regard either. She had always been lithe and quick, and accomplished at games like battledore and shuttlecock. Though how she managed to move about so effortlessly in her fashionable gowns with their voluminous gigot sleeves, I could not fathom.
I squinted across the windswept field toward where Rye stood with his son, his dark head gleaming in the sunlight as he bent over to help repair something on the kite they clutched, oblivious to his fiancée's struggle. Not that there was anything he could do about it. In truth, his interference would have made the matter a larger problem than it was.
The crack of a ball hitting a cricket bat drew my gaze toward the far side of the moor, where most of the men were playing with Morven's two older sons. The day being warm and fine, they had all discarded their coats and hats, and rolled up the sleeves of their shirts. I spied the golden head of my husband, Sebastian Gage, bent over to speak with one of the boys as he demonstrated something with the bat. The sight brought a smile to my lips as I imagined him doing something similar with our own daughter in some years' time.
For now, Emma, being only three and a half months old, was content to loll about on the blanket beside me, grappling with a ragdoll she drooled and gnawed on. That is, when she was able to successfully get it in her mouth. I retrieved the soggy twist of cloths as it tumbled to her side out of reach and lifted it to her chest, tickling her with it. She squealed and giggled in delight, the sight of her happy grin filling me with joy.
My Aunt Cait gave a warning cry, alerting me to the wildly kicked ball headed toward us. With a deftly placed foot, I stopped it before it reached the blanket, then tossed it back toward Morven's youngest child, who, at barely two years old, was doing his best to kick it toward the octogenarian Lord Barbreck.
The entire party had joined in the games and antics with the other children. Everyone, that is, except Lady Bearsden, Charlotte's great-aunt. She was supposed to be keeping me company but instead sat behind me softly snoring. She had nodded off in one of the chairs the footmen had lugged up the hillock so that the two oldest members of our excursion would not have to try to lower themselves to the blankets laid out in the shade of the ruins of an old castle.
Not that I blamed her. I stifled a yawn. Given half a chance, I would have nodded off myself-the warmth of the afternoon and the clean, fresh air lulling me into slumber. When I was lucky, Emma woke me only twice in the middle of the night and went straight back to sleep, but the past week she had demanded more feedings than usual. It was normal, our nanny Mrs. Mackay, had informed me. Merely an indication that Emma was about to outgrow her little gowns.
I attempted to smother another yawn, but not fast enough to hide it from Morven as she sank down on the blanket beside me, settling her goldenrod-patterned skirts.
"Still up at all hours?" Her lips curled upward in commiseration as I nodded. "It won't be much longer. Before you know it, she'll be sleeping through the night, and you'll be the one waking with a start, wondering if she's taken ill."
The idea of Emma sleeping through the night sounded heavenly at the moment, but I could also well imagine what Morven was saying. I probably would rush over to Emma's cradle to make sure she was breathing if she slept longer than four hours at a spell.
Though some members of the nobility hired wet-nurses for their infants, it had become increasingly more popular and acceptable for ladies to nurse their own children. In any case, it was something the women in the Rutherford branch of our family had insisted upon for generations, and frankly I found the prospect of sending my child off with someone else to be fed and cared for horrifying. We had a nurse to help care for Emma, as did all noble families, but she slept in her cradle in my bedchamber or the adjoining nursery every night.
Charlotte knelt on the blanket a short distance away, her gaze directed over her shoulder toward where the two young cousins now batted the shuttlecock back and forth. Her brow was marked with worry lines.
"Don't take it to heart," Morven murmured, reaching a hand toward her along the blanket to draw her attention. "Children can be brutal at Jane's age. They don't yet understand how to politely mask their reactions, or fully grasp the concept of empathy." She chuckled. "Especially for the fallibility of adults." Her gaze dropped to Emma, who offered her a drooly grin. "The important thing is to keep trying," she cooed as if she was speaking to the baby, even though she was still addressing Charlotte. She tapped Emma on the nose before straightening and continuing in a normal voice. "It might not seem like it, but children value most the time you spend with them, regardless of the activity you might be pursuing. It's how they know that you care."
I tipped my head, contemplating this advice, which seemed remarkably sound.
Charlotte reached up to smooth back the loose wisps of pale blond hair that had escaped their pins and offered her a smile of gratitude. "I fear I'm rather green at all of this and hopelessly out of my depth."
That she had admitted such a thing told me how vulnerable she must feel. The forlorn look in her soft gray eyes tugged at my heart.
"I think you're doing splendidly," I told her.
"You are. You truly are," Morven echoed in encouragement.
"After all, children don't exactly come with instructions." I glanced down at Emma. "A mother isn't instantly blessed with the knowledge and insight about how to best care for her child the moment he or she is born. There are bound to be a few stumbles, a few mistakes." I realized my tone had turned pensive, revealing a bit of my own insecurities in being a new mother, and shrugged a shoulder in commiseration with Charlotte.
"Well, I think you're both doing marvelous," Morven declared, squeezing my upper arm. "Now . . ." She flicked her dark curled tresses off her shoulder and turned to survey the remnants of our picnic scattered across the blanket. "Where is the lemonade? I'm positively parched, and it's only a matter of time before we're descended upon by sweaty boys and men, who will undoubtedly finish it off."
"I believe it's in the basket beside Lady Bearsden," I said as Morven began rising to her feet, having already spied her quarry.
Charlotte fondly shook her head at her great-aunt. "When did Auntie doze off?"
"Not long after everyone abandoned the blankets."
"And abandoned you."
I smiled softly. "I don't mind." I gestured toward the panorama before us. "Not with a view like this one."
I had never traveled to Argyll, which perched along the western edge of the Scottish mainland, but it was beautiful. A multitude of rivers, lochs, and inlets divided the coast into peninsulas, and at the farthest edge were the Inner Hebridean isles. Much of the landscape reminded me of my brother-in-law's castle on the shores of Loch Ewe in the northern Highlands-its colors in undulating greens, browns, amber, and even red ochre; its terrain of deep forests, boggy moors, and windswept rocky crags. Loch Craignish also happened to be a sea loch, opening into the Atlantic Ocean at its southern end. Situated at the northern tip as we were and raised on a hillock overlooking the steel blue water, we could gaze down the length of the loch for some distance.
I tipped my head back and breathed deeply of the Highland air thick with the scent of pine trees and the salty brine of the loch, as well as the faint aroma of old stone. The castle ruins providing us shade were little more than two stubby walls of a former tower while a number of larger stones straggled across the hillock. Lord Barbreck had explained that the rest of the rocks had long been carted away, most of them being utilized to help build the new castle in the early seventeenth century near the spot where the manor now stood. That building had been burned to the ground by Hanoverian troops following the Jacobite rising of 1745, but if I looked to the northeast over the treetops, I could just spy the decorative chimneys and crenellations of the Georgian manor which had been built to replace it some fifty years ago.
At the sound of the loud snuffle behind me, I looked over my shoulder to find Lady Bearsden blinking up at Morven.
"Rise and shine, sleepy-head," my cousin teased as she poured herself some lemonade from the pitcher she'd located.
"I wasn't sleeping," she countered, pushing herself upright, then patting her snow-white hair to be certain it was in place. "Merely resting my eyes."
Morven nodded toward her chin. "Then I suppose you'll blame that bit of drool on little Emma?"
Lady Bearsden swiped at her face but, upon seeing the smirk Morven had failed to hide behind her glass, narrowed her eyes. Morven bent forward to return the pitcher to the basket, but the older lady halted her with a thump of her gold figure-headed cane, narrowly missing my cousin's foot. "Aren't you going to offer to pour some for me? My, but isn't it warm today." She fanned her face with her hand. "And you ladies dashing about in this heat."
"I suppose you and Kiera had the right idea," Morven replied good-naturedly, handing her the glass of lemonade she'd demanded in retaliation for Morven's impertinence.
Lady Bearsden accepted it with a nod of thanks. "I told Kiera I was surprised she'd not brought her sketchbook with her, as I've scarcely seen her without it the past three days."
She had, indeed, already remarked such just before dozing off and apparently missing my answer.
"There are many interesting sights to capture at Barbreck," I replied. "But I suspected it would be much too blustery on this hill to fumble with paper and charcoals, and I was correct."
"All the same, that view must be beckoning to you," Charlotte interjected, admiring the aspect before us.
"Yes and no."
This admission was met by a quizzical glance.
"Kiera is only curious about people." A twinkle lit Morven's eyes as she sat beside me again. "Landscapes are much too dull and less prone to foibles."
I laughed. "I suppose that's partly true. But portraits are definitely where my talents lie. I wish I could paint a landscape half so well as Gainsborough or Constable," I added wistfully.
My cousin made a derisive sound at the back of her throat. "Well, I wish I could paint more than a blob with arms and legs. You happen to be one of the most gifted portrait artists in all of Britain, so don't expect me to feel sorry for you."
I smiled at her taunting tone, hearing the pride behind it. Though she had been exaggerating, at least a little. It was true that, second only to my family, my art was my greatest passion. But while my portrait paintings had recently become all the rage, that was more due to my scandalous reputation than my talent. And my decision some months past to stop accepting portrait commissions had only seen the demand for them rise. In the past three weeks alone, I had turned down two outrageous offers from one of the highest-ranking peers of the realm and a wealthy industrialist. Had money been my chief consideration, I might have been sorely tempted, but Gage's fortune was more than adequate, and I was much more interested in pursuing my own portrait projects.
"I've two Gainsboroughs up at the hall," the Marquess of Barbreck declared, shuffling over to rejoin us with the aid of his walking stick. "A few Van Dycks, Titian, Reynolds, Zoffany . . ." he continued rattling off artists' names, some of whom made my ears perk up with interest. I had already spied a pair of portraits by Thomas Lawrence and a delightful watercolor by Thomas Girtin, but I'd not yet had time to explore the rest of the manor, what with the demands of motherhood and preparations for the wedding to be completed.
"Yes, Barbreck is quite proud of his art collection," my Aunt Cait said, breaking into this litany as she herded Morven's youngest child toward his mother. As always, dressed in the first stare of fashion, my late mother's younger sister appeared elegant and unruffled even after chasing a toddler and his ball about.
"Rightfully so," Barbreck trumpeted in his deep brogue as he settled in the other chair. "'Tis one o' the finest private collections in all o' Scotland. Nay, all o' Britain!" He gestured upward with his walking stick before lowering it to point at me, his scraggly white eyebrows arching. "I'll take you for a tour myself one o' these days." He thumped the stick down between his legs, leaning against the silver filigreed head. Between his and Lady Bearsden's canes, I expected someone's head or knuckles to be rapped at any moment. "At least I ken you'll appreciate it."