The Lockhart brothers' quest for an ancient family heirloom has proved fruitless...and an unpaid loan has left them indebted to their rival, Payton Douglas. With no recourse, the Lockharts offer Payton their most valuable commodity: their sister Mared's hand in marriage.
Raised to despise the Douglas name, Mared outwardly agrees to the marital bargain for the sake of her family; secretly, she concocts a plan to ensure Payton will not wish to marry her. Seeing the handsome, virile laird Payton face-to-face, however, threatens a centuries-long enmity and awakens Mared's deepest desires. But she will not be swayed. Choosing to repay her family's debt by working as his housekeeper instead of wedding him, she finds herself inexorably drawn to the man she vowed to resist. Then a profound discovery changes everything....Now, no longer bound by a promise to her family, Mared must let her heart decide if the laird Payton is the enemy of past legend or if he holds the key to a future filled with a passion beyond her wildest dreams.
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Julia London is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of more than forty romantic fiction novels. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Highland Grooms historical series, including Wild Wicked Scot, Sinful Scottish Laird, Hard-Hearted Highlander, Devil in Tartan, Tempting the Laird, and Seduced by a Scot. She is also the author of several contemporary romances, such as the Homecoming Ranch series and the Lake Haven series, including Suddenly Dating, Suddenly in Love, and Suddenly Engaged. Julia is the recipient of the RT Book Reviews Award for Best Historical Romance and a six-time finalist for the prestigious RITA award for excellence in romantic fiction. She lives in Austin, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
Eilean Ros, The Trossachs of the Scottish Highlands
Payton Douglas was surrounded by the enemy, his back against the wall...or hearth, as it were. The Lockharts advanced on him with an anxious look in their eyes, and he wondered how they had managed to gain entry, today in particular, when he was entertaining some very important men from Glasgow. Men who were, at this very moment, rather deep in their cups, having sampled the barley-bree Scotch whiskey distilled here, on his estate, Eilean Ros.
But his enemies were desperate and, by their own confession, in quite a predicament, for they'd been caught completely unawares when their dear friend, Hugh MacAlister, had purloined their priceless family heirloom a gold statue of a beastie with ruby eyes right out from under their noses.
Griffin Lockhart, from whom the beastie had been stolen, had just argued passionately that while this outrageous insult would be avenged in due time, at the moment, it seemed that MacAlister's actions had left the entire Lockhart family near to penniless and faced with the forced betrothal of their only daughter, Mared, to the man who had lent them a princely sum to retrieve the beastie: Payton Douglas.
The very same Payton Douglas who stood with his back against the cold hearth, eyeing the only one of the five Lockharts in his study who seemed inordinately relaxed. Seated at his writing desk, she idly twirled a quill pen as Payton stoically listened to the rather windy speech of her laird father. Frankly, one could scarcely do anything but listen when in the company of so many Lockharts.
This speech, obviously prepared in advance, judging by the way Lady Lockhart's lips moved in unison with her husband's, spoke to how Payton, the son of ancestors who had spilled precious Lockhart blood in every war and time of strife, would take their only daughter to wife, having bargained for her in loaning them a substantial sum that was to be repaid within a year's time.
"'Tis the stuff of popular novels!" Lady Lockhart exclaimed.
Behind her, her daughter Mared smiled as she twirled the pen, as if that analogy amused her.
"Frankly, milady, I've never read a novel as befuddling as this," Payton said. "If I am to understand, do ye mean to say ye'll no' honor our agreement regarding the loan I made ye?"
That question was met with a burst of nervous, high-pitched laughter from the four dark-headed Lockharts standing at this little impromptu meeting: Carson, the aging laird of what was left of the Lockhart clan; his lean and graceful lady wife, Aila; their eldest son and massive soldier, Liam; and his younger brother Griffin, who was slightly smaller and quite debonair.
"Of course no'!" Liam boomed reassuringly. "But surely ye understand that we couldna have dreamed MacAlister would betray us so."
"As ye've said several times over now. Nevertheless, it would appear that he did indeed betray ye, and ye owe me a tidy sum, aye?"
The four standing Lockharts looked sheepishly at one another while Mared sighed and opened a book on his writing desk, flipping to the first page.
Grif quickly stepped forward and smiled charmingly. "If I may, milord...the problem is that without the beastie, we've no means to repay yer very generous loan "
"Three thousand pounds," Payton quickly reminded him, "was more than generous. It was sheer insanity."
"Aye, very generous," Grif agreed, casting an anxious glance at his family. "But we made a wee error, we did," he said, holding thumb and index finger together to show just how wee the error.
"I beg yer pardon, but there was no error. Yer father signed the promissory papers."
"That he did," Grif readily agreed. "And we promised Mared's hand to ye as collateral on yer loan, and...well, plainly put, Douglas, 'tis no secret how she feels about ye ah, that is to say...yer reforms," he said carefully, and exchanged a look with his mother.
"I know well how she feels, Grif," Payton responded impatiently. Everyone in every glen in the loch region knew of Mared's objection to marrying a Douglas and of her vehement displeasure at his introduction of sheep in and around the lochs. "'Tis no secret she doesna care for a Douglas. Yer sister, ye might have remarked, is no' a shy lass."
Mared chuckled softly and turned another page in the book he'd left on the writing desk, On the Winter Production of Wool and the Timely Shearing of the Na Caorridh Mora, the Big Sheep.
"No," Grif said with a bit of a frown for Mared's chuckle. "But ye canna fault the lass for being passionate in her beliefs."
Mared looked up from the book then and cocked a brow above a pair of sparkling green eyes, waiting for his answer.
He, in turn, glared at the Lockharts. This was precisely what was wrong with Mared she had been reared by this lot of blockheads. They all believed with the exception of Grif, perhaps, and even that was a questionable assumptionthat the sheep he had brought into the lochs were invading the land historically grazed by their cattle and thereby pushing the cattle to smaller areas and smaller numbers and therefore pushing them, the most exasperating family in all of bloody Scotland, into poverty.
They were right in some respects. But Payton believed their cattle could not graze properly in the Highlands and were not, and had never been, a profitable venture. Bloody fools, the Lockharts, who believed in the old system of crofting the land and raising lumbering beeves. And when that did not sustain them, they turned to stealing statues or some such nonsense from their English cousins.
He, on the other hand, believed in a system that allowed a fair wage to all the men the land could reasonably support, and sheep herding and, should a man be so inclined (as he was) whiskey production. Which was why he was eager to be done with this nonsense and return to the four men who might invest a substantial amount of money in his distillery venture.
Grif laughed uneasily again at Payton's stoic silence. "And...and perhaps our Mared deserves just a wee bit of pity, aye?" he tried again. "After all, she's got that wretched curse on her" Mared nodded emphatically that she did "and really, Douglas, can ye honestly desire her hand in marriage with that curse hanging over her like a dark cloud?"
Payton laughed derisively. "Ach, ye donna believe in that old curse! No one but crofters who fear fairies and goblins believe that old tale!"
"But ye canna deny that no daughter of a Lockhart has ever married," Liam quickly put in. "Perhaps it is just as true that a daughter of a Lockhart willna wed until she's looked into the belly of the beast."
"Do ye think to frighten me with tales of a' diabhal?" he demanded, ignoring Mared's amused smile as she leaned back in the chair and idly ran her fingers along the edge of the writing desk.
"Frighten ye!" Lady Lockhart exclaimed, stepping in to put her hand soothingly on Payton's arm. "No, no, milord, no' to frighten ye. Just to speak with ye, on Mared's behalf."
He checked his tongue and spoke evenly. "Frankly, milady, I've never known yer Mared no' to speak on her own behalf. And quite articulately at that."
"Oh! How kindly put, sir!" Mared said sweetly, breaking her silence for the first time since appearing in his study.
"Ye willna honor the loan, is that it, lass?" Payton asked her directly.
"The Lockharts honor their debts, sir," Lady Lockhart interjected as she gave Mared a withering look. "But we need more time. Just a wee bit more time to find Mr. MacAlister."
"How much time?"
"Ten months," Lady Lockhart said quickly. "In addition to the two remaining, of course."
Another year? With a sigh of impatience, Payton shoved a hand through his hair. He had no idea what to say to them, really. He had no idea how he felt about all of it asking for Mared's hand as collateral on the loan had been an impetuous act, spurred by her devilish smile that afternoon in his parlor. Like the Lockharts, he never believed it would all come to this. He wasn't entirely certain he wanted a wife. He looked at her now, as she obviously took pleasure in his discomfort, and thought he certainly must be a madman to want this one as a wife.
But the truth, as much as he was loath to admit it, was that he adored Mared Lockhart. He always had.
In the four months since Grif's return to Scotland, Payton had not asked about the loan or pressed the issue of marriage. But now that very little more than two months remained in their agreement the Lockharts had been given a year to repay the money he had loaned them, or give Mared over for marriage they wanted more time?
"No," he said decisively. "Ye canna ask this of me I have given ye a significant sum of money that ye've obviously squandered "
"No' squandered!" Grif objected.
"What ye did with it is no concern of mine, but ye canna repay me as we agreed, and thereby, ye leave me no choice."
"Land," Grif said quickly. "We can repay ye in land."
Payton considered that for a moment. It was a plausible option, but not terribly desirable. The Lockhart land was separated from his estate by the mountain Ben Cluaran. If he were to take land to repay the debt they owed him, it would leave them with precious little to farm. And it would be near to impossible for him to make much use of that land, separated from his estate as it was, for the manpower required to farm it would be far costlier than the yield. The only way it would be of use to him was if he could put sheep on it, and he rather doubted the Lockharts would allow it, what with their stubborn love of cows.
He shook his head and looked at the laird. "Ye agreed to my terms, Lockhart. I'll ask that ye set a date for the betrothal."
Mared's smile suddenly faded. She slapped the book shut and looked at her father, as did everyone else in that stuffy room. Carson thoughtfully rubbed his chin, then sighed wearily. "We shall set the date a year and a day from whence the loan was made, then," he said after a moment.
"Carson!" Lady Lockhart cried.
"Ach, mo ghraidh, he's right, ye know he is! We agreed to the terms of the loan, as did Mared "
"Under considerable duress, Father!" Mared interjected.
"Aye, perhaps," he said, turning to look at her. "But ye agreed all the same. We knew there was a possibility Grif wouldna succeed, and now we must honor our word, daughter. Ye must do so, as well."
Lady Lockhart gasped.
"'Tis too late, Aila," Carson said gruffly. "What else is left to her, then? Douglas is the only man in the parish who puts no stock in fairies and goblins and will have her!"
That did not soothe Lady Lockhart or Mared, whose expression grew quite murderous.
"Ye must no' fear yer welfare, lass," Payton softly assured her. "On my honor, I will always treat ye well."
"Ach, how can ye pretend so?" she demanded. "The Douglases and the Lockharts have been sworn enemies for hundreds of years!"
"Ye donna understand, Payton Douglas!" Lady Lockhart insisted firmly. "'Tis no' Mared's welfare that we fear 'tis yer welfare."
She said it so earnestly that Payton couldn't help but laugh. "I donna fear her," he laughingly assured her. "Ye've nothing to fear, then, for she canna hurt me," he said and laughed again at Mared's glower.
She had come to her feet, was standing behind the desk with her arms folded implacably across her trim middle. "I willna marry ye, Payton Douglas."
"Mared!" Lady Lockhart cried.
But Payton chuckled and thought that it might be fun to tame the fire in her in his bed. "Aye, ye will, Mared. And as there is nothing further to discuss, please excuse me. I've guests," he said, and with a curt nod to the impossible Lockharts, he strode out of the stuffy room, smiling inwardly at the thought of Mared in his bed.
That night, in her room high above the study in the old tower, Mared was busily at work.
Her spirit was far from broken.
Her family could think of nothing to save her, blast the lot of them, but she'd not lie idle. Even now, in the stillness of the night, in her drafty chambers of the even draftier old castle, Mared wrote two letters by the light of a single candle while the rest of them slept.
The first was directed to Miss Beitris Crowley, the daughter of the solicitor in Aberfoyle. Mared had befriended her, had taken long, chatty walks with her along the banks of Loch Ard, across from Eilean Ros, assessing her suitability as the future Lady Douglas.
Aye. The future Lady Douglas.
Mared had come to the conclusion that perhaps if the odious and highly objectionable Laird Douglas had another, more charming alternative to her, he might forgive the ridiculous terms of the loan and take to wife a woman more suitable for him in temperament and mien. She had suggested as much to him; he had laughed and responded that any woman, old or young, fat or thin, rich or poor, would be better suited to him in temperament and mien than she was, and seemed to think himself quite the wit for having said it.
Mared was determined to prove it to him, with or without Beitris's help. Beitris, she had discovered, was painfully shy, particularly in the company of Laird Douglas. She'd put Beitris in his path a dozen times at least, and the lass had still not gained as much as a kiss. He terrified her. Of course he did he was a creature who had obviously climbed out of the loch.
"He's awfully big, is he no'?" Beitris had asked Mared in a fearful tone of voice one afternoon after they had "happened" to encounter him in Aberfoyle. The man seemed to have that effect on all the young women around the lochs, Mared had noticed.
You must, she wrote to Miss Crowley, remember that polite conversation will take you only so far. A man should like to know that he is well thought of, and that he, above all others, holds your coveted esteem. Remember too that a man enjoys the chance to be gallant, but you must create an opportunity for him to be so, for rarely are men so clever, left to their own devices, to create such opportunities. Perhaps you might drop your linen in his company, or fumble with your parasol and allow him to rescue you....
Mared was fond of Beitris, she truly was, but sometimes Beitris seemed rather dense when it came to flirting. She had not, Mared surmised, been courted outright.
Not that Mared had been courted outright, either. There was not a man around the lochs who wasn't deathly afraid of her, given the blasted curse that followed her, but she'd witnessed the many colorful and courtly romances of her brother Griffin, who had, with varying degrees of success, she heard tell, attempted to bed almost every lass in the lochs before he went off to London and brought back a wife. That made her reasonably well versed in the mechanics of courting...at least more so than Beitris.
She finished her instructions to Beitris and sealed the letter with a drop of wax. She then gritted her teeth and picked up her pen.
The Honorable Laird Douglas, Greatest Ruler in All the Land...
Perhaps a bit dramatic, but she hardly cared. She wrote on, requesting the honor of calling on his cousin, Sarah Douglas, who, according to gossips in Aberfoyle, had come to Eilean Ros for the summer.
Mared's eyes narrowed as she read her letter one last time. Satisfied that her writing revealed nothing more than proper civility, she sealed it with a drop of wax, put it carefully on her vanity, and blew out the candle. As she slipped into her bed, a smile curved her lips.
She didn't give a damn about their agreement. She'd not marry that man.
How could she? Marrying him would be admitting defeat, and she was not prepared to do that. Besides, her dream of returning to Edinburgh was very much alive within her. It was that dream that had sustained her in the last few years.
She'd spent a fortnight in Edinburgh ten or so years ago, before the family fortune had begun to disappear. It had been a magical place, teeming with people and arts and it seemed there was a soiree or gathering every night. Yet the best part about it was that no one in Edinburgh knew of or believed in old curses. They treated her as a person. Not like here in the lochs, where everyone looked at her as some sort of witch.
She'd even had a pair of potential suitors in her short time there, and was convinced that, in Edinburgh, her whole life would change.
No, she'd not marry Payton Douglas and remain in the lochs all of her days, where her life was so wretchedly confined. Every word she uttered publicly was guarded, every path she took hidden from superstitious eyes. It would be a joy to live in Edinburgh. It would be a joy to simply live!
Mared fell asleep thinking of Edinburgh. But she dreamed she was walking along the banks of Loch Ard, in the company of a young man with golden hair who smiled at her and stole kisses from her. They walked until they came upon a rowdy crowd. When Mared moved closer to see what they were shouting about, she realized that they were to witness an execution.
She looked up to the gallows and with a start recognized the first Lady of Lockhart, the beauty who had sacrificed all for love. Her hands were tied behind her back, and she was kneeling at a chopping block.
Next to her was her lover, Livingstone, with a noose around his neck.
As Mared watched in horror, the executioner hanged her lady's lover. And as he twisted beside her, they lay the Lady of Lockhart's head on the block. As the executioner lifted his blade, she screamed, "Fuirich do mi!"
Wait for me....
The blade came down and Lady Lockhart's head dropped to the ground and rolled to Mared's feet. Mared screamed and looked around for her beau, but she was suddenly alone. Yet her scream had drawn the attention of the crowd, and they turned on her, recognizing her as the daughter of Lady Lockhart. The accursed one, they said. Spawned by the devil and left to live with the devil.
"A daughter born of a Lockhart will no' marry until she's looked into the belly of the beast!" an old woman spat at her, and the crowd began to chant that she must look into the belly of the beast as they advanced on her.
Screaming, Mared ran with the murderous crowd on her heels. She ran until she reached the river, where the crowd kept coming for her, until Mared fell in. The water closed over her head and she sank to the murky bottom, struggling to free herself of her clothing. But she couldn't hold her breath, and she was choking for air.
With a gasp, Mared suddenly rose up in her bed, her hands at her throat, and the bed linens twisted around her body. Her forehead was wet with perspiration.
She caught her breath, took several deep breaths more, then slowly untangled herself from the bed linens. Unsteadily, she stood, walked to the hearth to stoke it as she willed her heart to stop pounding.
The dream had shaken her badly. It always did.
Payton Douglas would not hold her here. She would not be held captive in a land where she was despised. She would escape the lochs for Edinburgh and nothing would stop her.
Copyright © 2005 by Dinah Dinwiddie
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved the entire series of the Lockhart clan. all three books were wonderful to read. I am so so curious to find out if there will be a fourth book continuing the lockhart stores
I loved the hero in this book...
I had a really hard time with this book. I just couldn't stand Mared and found her to be spoiled and undeserving of Payton's love. Even after all the things that happens between them, she still goes against her heart and his love. I just didn't like it and I love mrs. London's books, but this one was not a typical book from her.
This was overall a great story, but I found myself wanting to slap some sense into Mared. Many times. For as clever as she thinks she is, she sure doesn't get it when it comes to men! Especially the one who obviously loves her. I loved Payton's character, though, and thought that he was just a wonderful man. OK, except for making Mared his housekeeper. Other than that, he was incredibly romantic, protective, and super-masculine. YUM.