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Aye, I believe in the MacLean curse. If ye'd seen the blinding white lightning and heard the roar of thunder over MacLean Castle on a clear summer morn as I have, ye'd believe it, too.
OLD WOMAN NORA FROM LOCH LOMOND TO HER THREE WEE GRANDDAUGHTERS ONE COLD EVENING
"Argh! Bentley! Where are you?"
The yell echoed through the morning air, over the loud clops from the horses and carts that were just beginning to stir in Mayfair, London's most fashionable district.
Startled, Gregor MacLean stepped back from the ornate door of Oglivie House and glanced up at the open third-story window.
It was far too early for drama. Well, it was too early at most domiciles. At Oglivie House, drama was never out of fashion.
Gregor bit back an impatient sigh and stepped forward, rapping the knocker hard. The Oglivies were silly, extremely emotional, and far too given to excitement. Nothing could have brought him to this door except their one and only daughter, Venetia. Calm, logical, and rarely indulging in unseemly displays of emotion, Venetia easily offset her parents' sad tendencies. In fact, during his years of friendship with Venetia, Gregor had discovered only one flaw: a disturbing inclination to become overly involved in the lives of others.
"Bentley!" Mr. Oglivie's voice rang out louder than before, a hint of a sob at the end.
Gregor rapped on the door yet again. The quicker he collected Venetia for their morning ride, the quicker he'd be away from the brewing madness.
The door flew open, the usually impassive butler gasping a relieved sigh. "My lord, I am so glad -- you can have no idea -- it's been a horrible morning and -- "
Gregor walked past the incoherent butler. At Oglivie House, something as small as the chef quitting or a misplaced bracelet resulted in scenes worthy of the stage, complete with ranting, raving, accusations, and weeping. He knew from long experience that the best way to deal with such distractions was to ignore them. "I've come to take Miss Venetia for our morning ride. I assume she's ready?"
Overhead, a thump rattled the crystals on the chandelier.
Gregor frowned up the stairs before saying uneasily, "Is Miss Venetia awaiting me in the breakfast room? We should make haste to reach the park before the fops arise and clog the pathways."
Bentley's brow wrinkled. "But, my lord, Miss Oglivie isn't -- "
A loud crash sounded from upstairs, followed by an unmistakable yell: "Bentley! Order the carriage!"
Gregor cut a hard glance at Bentley. "What were you saying about Miss Oglivie?"
The butler's eyes teared up alarmingly. "She's missing, my lord, and we don't know where to find her."
"What?" The word snapped through the air.
Bentley wrung his hands. "Yes, my lord. Miss Oglivie apparently left the house quite early this morning, and no one knows where she went." The butler glanced warily up the stairs, then leaned forward to add in an undertone, "She left a note for Lord Oglivie and he has been in a taking since he read it."
"Do you know what the note said?"
Bentley shook his head regretfully.
How odd. It was quite unlike Venetia to --
A door slammed above, then Mr. Oglivie appeared on the landing and ran down the stairs. Though usually the most elegant of men, he wore a long white night rail, his robe loose and streaming about him, his feet bare, his hair in a white, unkempt fluff around a precariously tipped nightcap.
"Bentley!" Oglivie waved a crumpled paper over his head. "Did you not hear me? We must -- Venetia cannot -- she might be -- Oh, no!" His voice caught and he sank to the bottom step and dropped his head in his hands. "What shall I do? What shall I do?"
Gregor eyed Venetia's father, unmoved. Oglivie had once taken to his bed for a week over the loss of his prize poodle, certain his dog had been abducted for ransom. Of course, the dog had shown up a week later, bedraggled but happy, having taken up with some amorous three-legged mutt. The resulting pups were as hideous as expected.
Venetia's mother was cut from the same cloth, dismissing servants on a whim, declaring herself to be dying whenever she had a headache, going into a decline if an acquaintance unknowingly slighted her, and enacting Cheltenham tragedies at the drop of a hat.
Gregor couldn't count the scenes he'd witnessed, none of which he'd allowed to affect him. Why waste one's strength on mere emotion? Things always sorted themselves out, usually without anyone's help.
Despite Mr. Oglivie's piteous sobs, Gregor doubted that Venetia was in any danger. More than likely, she'd merely forgotten their promised ride and had gone for a walk. She'd send him a note when she returned, and all would be right with the world.
Whatever the truth, Gregor decided it was time for him to make his exit. "Mr. Oglivie, I bid you adieu. You obviously need privacy in your time of distress, so I will leave you n -- "
"No!" Venetia's father held out an imploring hand. "Lord MacLean! I beg of you -- for Venetia's sake, if not mine! She -- " He gulped as if the words were caught in his throat, his gaze desperately seeking Gregor's. "Please," the older man said, his voice cracking, his eyes wet with tears, his tone strained to a mere thread. "Please help me find her."
Something in Oglivie's face chilled Gregor's heart. There was genuine terror in his gaze.
Suddenly both cold and hot, Gregor snapped, "What's happened?"
"She -- She -- " Oglivie dropped his head back into his hands, a sob ringing through the foyer.
Gregor's hands fisted at his sides. Outside, thunder suddenly rumbled, the wind rattling against the windowpanes. He strode toward the stairs, his boots sounding sharply on the marble floor as he came to a halt before the older man. "Oglivie, what about Venetia?"
Mr. Oglivie lifted his head. "She's gone, MacLean! Abducted! And all because of me!"
The sentence hung in the air, a living, breathing fear. The wind lifted again, more furious and colder than before as it whistled around the closed door and chilled their ankles, ruffling the edges of Lord Oglivie's night rail.
"How can this be your fault?"
Oglivie's lips quivered. "Because he -- he -- told me he wished to run off with Venetia and I -- I -- I encouraged him, thinking she might find it romantic. I never thought he'd do it without her knowledge. I thought -- "
"What's his name?" Gregor asked, his jaw so tight it ached.
Gregor had an instant image of a young man with a weak chin and an overeager manner. "That whelp? You encouraged him?"
Oglivie flushed a deep red. "He seemed genuinely taken with Venetia and she was always pleasant to him -- "
"She's pleasant to everyone." His gaze locked on the note in Oglivie's hand. "Is that from Venetia?"
His eyes swimming with tears, Oglivie handed over the note.
Gregor scanned it.
Oglivie's voice quavered. "You must understand, MacLean. Lord Ravenscroft wished to marry her, but she's so shy and -- "
Gregor crushed the note between his fingers. "Bloody hell!" The note was written in Venetia's distinctively looping scribble. It said simply that she was accompanying Ravenscroft to attend her mother in Stirling 'as requested.' The fool must have told Venetia that her mother was ill.
Mr. Oglivie rubbed a trembling hand over his eyes. "I can't believe he did such a thing! I thought he was a fine, outstanding -- "
But Gregor had already turned on his heel and was striding toward the door.
"MacLean!" Oglivie jumped up and followed Gregor onto the doorstep, not noticing that a mere hour ago it had been clear and springlike, while now the cold wind blew with a ferocity that ripped off his nightcap and sent it tumbling down the road. Shivering, he said over the wind's howl, "MacLean, where are you going?"
"To find your daughter." Gregor took the reins of his horse from a waiting footman and threw himself into the saddle.
"But how? You don't know where to begin!"
"I've heard that Ravenscroft lodges on St. James Street. I will start there."
"But when you find them? What will you do then?"
"Whatever I damn well have to," Gregor said, his face grim. "In the meantime, wait here and keep your mouth closed. No one can know she's gone."
"But -- "
"Closed, Oglivie. That should keep you occupied until I return." Without waiting for a reply, Gregor turned his horse and galloped away.
Oglivie crossed his arms against the frigid wind, unable to look away from MacLean's rapidly disappearing figure. "What have I done?" he whispered, tears streaming anew. "Venetia, my darling girl, where are you?"
Miles away, in a rented carriage that raced over a deeply rutted road, young Lord Ravenscroft held his wounded hand against his chest. "You cut me! I'm bleeding like a stuck pig!"
"Do not overstate the facts, if you please." Swaying with the wild ride of the coach, Miss Venetia Oglivie pulled her handkerchief from her reticule and wiped off the pin of her pearl and silver brooch. "I did not cut you -- though had I a knife, I might have been tempted to do more than stick your hand with my brooch pin."
Ravenscroft stuck his knuckle into his mouth. "Whatever it was, there was no call for it."
"I warned you to cease making a cake of yourself."
"I wasn't making a cake of myself! I was merely saying that I love y -- " Ravenscroft gasped as Venetia raised the pin once again, his eyes wide as if she held a dagger.
She lowered the pin and sighed. "Really, Ravenscroft, these missish vapors are not the least attractive."
"Missish vapors? Venetia! How can you say -- "
"That's Miss Oglivie to you," she said firmly.
Ravenscroft scooted down the seat, away from the glimmering pin. "Look, Vene -- I mean, Miss Oglivie. I -- I -- I am sorry if you think I was out of line in declaring myself -- "
"You were grossly out of line, especially in these sad circumstances."
He blinked uncertainly, hanging on to the leather strap that hung overhead as the carriage bumped over a deep rut. "Sad circumstances?"
Venetia eyed her companion for a grave moment. "Have you forgotten why we are traveling over this horrid road at such a dangerous speed? My poor mother is ill."
"Ah, yes. That." Ravenscroft tugged at his cravat as if it had suddenly tightened about his throat. "Your mother. I suppose I was...not precisely forgetful, for that would never do, but I was, ah, overcome -- Yes! I was overcome by passion and forgot your mother." He added hastily, "But only for a moment! I quite remember now that we're going to visit your poor mother at your grandmother's house in Stirling."
Venetia supposed she shouldn't be surprised at Ravenscroft's scattered memory; he wasn't the sharpest quill in the pot. But something whispered that things were not right. Something she couldn't quite put her finger on. "Perhaps we should stop at the next inn and see to your hand."
Ravenscroft shook his head vehemently. "No. We can't stop."
She regarded him through narrowed eyes. "Why not?"
"Because...we'll be late. And it would make more sense to wait until it's dark."
Venetia frowned, her suspicion rising even more. She should have asked more questions before leaving, but when Ravenscroft had burst into the breakfast room that morning, a note clutched in his hand, desperation on his young face, she hadn't thought at all. Written in her father's hand, the note requested that she immediately go with Ravenscroft to assist Mother.
Used to Mama's tendency to think every twitch a death spasm and Papa's unerring ability to avoid responsibility, Venetia had found the request inconvenient but not odd. So she'd changed out of her riding habit, hastily packed a portmanteau, and swiftly dashed off a reassuring note to Papa that she'd do as he'd bid, before climbing into Ravenscroft's carriage.
Of course, it would not do to worry until she'd seen Mama for herself. It was a pity, though, that the burden of escorting her had been placed on Ravenscroft, Papa's newest "project." Papa thought of himself as a champion of the downtrodden, which meant that every once in a while, he'd attempt to help some poor lost soul navigate the tricky waters of the ton. Papa called it his great social experiment, though Venetia privately thought he simply enjoyed the extravagant compliments that Ravenscroft gratefully showered upon him.
Early this morning, as they were madly dashing from London, Venetia'd felt sorry for poor Ravenscroft for getting embroiled in her family's mad contretemps. But after sitting in the carriage for more than two hours, she had serious doubts about him. Something -- she wasn't certain what -- was not as it should be. He seemed exceedingly nervous, and kept sticking his head out the window as if expecting that someone was following them.
Venetia was many things, but stupid was not one of them. When she attempted to question Ravenscroft about the circumstances that had led Papa to request they fly off to Mama's side, Ravenscroft stuttered and stammered a mishmash of unrelated explanations and excuses that left her with a headache.
She unhooked the leather curtain to look outside. They were traveling far too swiftly for safety. The horses were fairly sprung, so they'd have to stop soon to change them. When they did, she'd refuse to continue until Ravenscroft answered her questions. If he refused to do so, she'd take refuge with the landlady and send word to London for her father to come for her.
Her plan in place, Venetia shivered at the cold wind and latched the curtain back into place. She settled back against the squabs and cast a disparaging eye over Ravenscroft. Though twenty-two years of age, he seemed much younger. He was thin and lamentably short-statured, a fact he tried to conceal by adding buckram wadding to the shoulders of his coats and heels to his riding boots. He possessed watery blue eyes and no chin to speak of, but what he lacked in looks and comportment he made up for in enthusiastic flattery -- which was why Papa thought Ravenscroft could do no wrong.
Venetia grabbed the edge of the seat as the carriage slid around a bend in the road. "Ravenscroft, we are traveling too fast for this road!"
"Yes, but, ah, if we go fast, we'll get there...faster."
Venetia frowned, but before she could ask another question, the carriage rocked violently as it hit an especially deep rut, and for a second, they were tossed into the air. Venetia slammed back onto the seat with a gasp. "Ravenscroft, we are going much too fast!"
He stuck out a foot to press against the corner, trying to wedge himself firmly into place. "We can't slow down," he said, in the tone of a mutinous child. "Your mother is expecting us."
"If we have an accident and turn over, we won't get there at all!"
Ravenscroft's mouth turned downward, but he didn't answer.
Miffed, Venetia tugged at the carriage blanket that was over her lap. She was bruised, tired, and quite out of sorts. Plus it was getting colder as they traveled north, much colder. So cold, in fact, that it made her think of Gregor.
Gregor. Oh blast, she hadn't left him a note! By now he'd be at Oglivie House, wondering where she was.
Venetia closed her eyes, clinging to her seat as the carriage bumped and swayed along. Gregor MacLean was her best friend. He knew all of her foibles and shortcomings, her passions and disappointments, and she knew his. She trusted his solid good sense. What would he tell her to do right now?
Most likely, he'd deliver a thundering scold about her impetuosity in going off with Ravenscroft. Gregor never did anything to help anyone. In his skewed opinion, everyone should help themselves. It was only the weak who needed assistance.
Venetia thought Gregor was a bit naive, which wasn't surprising the way the ton feted the man. It wasn't just because of his good looks; it was also because of the mysterious rumors that swirled about him -- rumors that he and his family held the secret to raising the winds, unleashing storms, and loosening thunder upon the heads of their enemies. People said that centuries long ago, Gregor's family had been cursed. When they lost their temper, storms rose -- wild, uncontrollable storms that could destroy everything in their paths. Because of this, all of the MacLeans struggled to maintain their tempers.
Sighing, Venetia reached over and unlatched the leather curtain to stare outside again. When she'd first met Gregor all those years ago, she'd heard the rumors but hadn't believed them. Over the years, though, she'd seen the curse in action -- which was why these rapidly gathering clouds and the chilling air made her think of Gregor.
Perhaps he'd discovered her missing and was even now riding to her rescue. She savored the picture of Gregor astride a white horse, galloping hell-forleather to save her, his green eyes gleaming with...irritation.
Her shoulders sagged. That's all Gregor would feel if he was ever put into the position of coming to her rescue -- irritation and a great sense of disgust that she'd been foolish enough to be tricked into an impropriety.
Disheartened, she latched the curtain back into place and sat back in her seat with a thump.
"What's wrong?" Ravenscroft asked, his face going pale. "Did you see someone? Are they following us?"
"No," she said shortly. "No one is following us." She crossed her arms, holding the carriage blanket a bit tighter, and regarded her companion with a steady gaze.
Ravenscroft pasted a smile on his face that looked as comfortable as the prince of Wales's corset. "Well!" he said brightly, "I daresay it's colder today than I've ever felt it to be in April. Don't you think so, Ven -- "
"Miss Oglivie, if you please."
His smile froze. "Miss Oglivie, of course."
"Thank you. And yes, I do think it's colder than any April I've ever seen, which is yet another reason why we should stop soon."
"But we'll lose time, and -- "
"Ravenscroft, I don't think you understand: it's a matter of personal comfort."
"Personal com -- " He blushed. "Oh! I didn't think -- that is, I didn't realize that you -- "
"Really, Ravenscroft, do not make this more embarrassing for me than it already is. I need to stop and that is that."
"Of course! I'll ask the coachman to halt as soon as we reach Torlington. That's a mere half an hour away."
She nodded and turned away from him, wedging herself into the corner to combat the severe swaying of the coach, and hoping for some silence.
To her relief, Ravenscroft settled into his place opposite hers, grabbing the seat with both hands to keep from being bounced into the air at every dip in the road, his chin sunk into his cravat. He looked exactly like a sulky schoolboy.
The minutes flew, the carriage jolting, the wooden body creaking and straining, as Venetia prayed that they'd make it to Torlington without toppling into a ditch.
Closing her eyes, she said a swift prayer that she could force some answers from Ravenscroft at the next stop.
Until then, prayers were all she had.
At this same time, a tall, elegant figure stepped out of White's Gentlemen's Club, settled his hat to shield his eyes from the falling snow, and waited as his carriage made its way up the crowded street to where he stood.
A moment ago, Dougal MacLean had been on the verge of winning a considerable sum playing whist. Then an idle glance out the window had caused him to exclaim aloud, toss down his cards, and leave so quickly, his companions were still blinking in surprise.
Dougal glanced up at the thickening snow and frowned. Only one thing could make it snow like this in April: the MacLean curse. It caused storms to gather whenever a MacLean grew angry, yet varied within each of them. Gregor, always cold and in control, produced storms of ice and snow. Lots of snow. Masses of snow. More snow than London had ever seen. Which was why Dougal had to find his brother, and quickly.
St. James Street was filled with scurrying people hunched against the wind, all of them staring at the rapidly falling snow with astonishment. The carriage arrived, the footman jumping down to open the door. Just as Dougal put his foot onto the step, he caught sight of a large figure coming through the snow. Unlike the other souls on the street, this one did not seem to mind the icy air. In fact, he almost seemed to relish the snow powdering his bared head.
"Gregor!" Dougal called.
As he drew near, Dougal saw the whiteness about his brother's mouth. "I must ask a favor of you," Gregor said. "My horse is at the end of the street. Can we -- " He nodded toward the carriage.
"Of course." Dougal looked at his footman, who dashed off to collect Gregor's mount. Soon the coach was rumbling down the street, the horse trotting behind.
Gregor slanted a hard look at Dougal. "Someone has absconded with Venetia Oglivie."
"Good God! Who would do such a thing?"
"That pup? He wouldn't have the sand."
Gregor's gaze was icy green. "That dead pup, once I'm through with him. He tricked Venetia into leaving town with him."
Venetia had left with the man of her own volition? Dougal regarded his brother from beneath his lashes. Venetia and Gregor had been friends since childhood, for so long, in fact, that even the gossips in town had ceased to comment on their morning rides and easy camaraderie. Was her association with Ravenscroft something more? "Do you think Venetia and Ravenscroft -- "
Dougal raised his brows as a raw wind rocked the coach and screeched along the ground.
"She was tricked," Gregor growled.
Dougal looked at where the wind was forcing snow through every crack on one side of the coach and wisely said, "Of course she was tricked. Venetia would never do something as impulsive as eloping, even if she was madly in love with someone."
The wind rocked the coach like the slam of a fist.
Dougal winced. "Gregor, please! We'll be blown off the road."
Gregor gripped his knees and took a deep breath, trying to relax. "If you wish to stay on the road, then stop making such asinine statements. Venetia did not elope. Ravenscroft told her that her mother had taken ill in Stirling. Ravenscroft's servant told me of the bounder's plans: how they are to travel to Gretna Green, how he will tell her the truth of their situation once they are far enough from London that she can't turn back. How he has massive debts and was to meet Lord Ulster for a duel this morning, but didn't show."
"The coward!" Dougal shook his head. "You must have offered Ravenscroft's man plenty of gold to get such information."
"Fortunately for me, the weasel has a dislike of being held by his ankles out of an open window."
"Ravenscroft plans on crossing to the North Road at the juncture above Pickmere and hopes Venetia won't notice."
"Won't notice? A road she's traveled many times before?"
"Ravenscroft is not the most intelligent of men. Which will make his death all the less missed."
"Gregor, if you do something rash, it will cause a scandal and Venetia could end up paying for it. It would be better to retrieve her and bring her back unscathed, and deal with Ravenscroft later."
"I will, but only if things haven't progressed too far."
Dougal's expression darkened. "You think that slack-jawed fool might take advantage of her?"
Gregor's hands fisted at the words, his heart thudding so loudly his ears rang. "If Ravenscroft wishes to live, he'd better not place so much as a finger upon her head."
"I can't believe he thinks to get away with this."
"It gets worse: Ravenscroft's servant thinks the idiot plans on fleeing England to avoid the duel and his debts."
"With Venetia in tow? Bloody hell!" The carriage rumbled to a stop and a footman quickly appeared to open the door. Gregor and Dougal stepped out and walked toward the portico of Dougal's London home. As soon as they were out of hearing of the servants, they stopped on the walkway, ignoring the swirling snow. "What can I do to help?" Dougal asked.
"Go to Oglivie House and stay with Venetia's father until I bring her home. He's distraught and out of control. If he tells even one soul that she's missing and how it came to be, the damage to her reputation will be irreparable."
"I'll hold him at pistol point if I must." Dougal paused, his gaze locking with his brother's. "Can you save Venetia?"
Gregor glanced up at the swirling snow, the wind seeping through his clothes. Already the snow was beginning to pile up in places. "I don't know," he said, the words torn from his lips. "I may have placed the one obstacle in my path that even I cannot overcome. This storm..." A sick feeling clutched at him at the thought. Damn his temper.
"Nonsense," Dougal said briskly, pulling his collar more tightly about his neck. "If the snow slows you down on horseback, it will slow down a carriage even more. I daresay it will give you an advantage, when all is said and done."
Relief flooded Gregor. "You're right. I hadn't thought of that."
"There'll be time enough for thinking once you're on your way. I have horses posted along the North Road. That will help." At Gregor's surprised look, Dougal shrugged. "There's a woman I occasionally visit when London seems dull. If you need to use one of my mounts, do so."
"I don't know how to thank you."
Dougal gave him a small smile. "Just find Venetia."
Gregor nodded, then strode back to the carriage, where the groom stood with his horse. Within seconds, he was thundering down the street.
Ice and snow lay thick upon the road, and he took heart in Dougal's words about the storm slowing Ravenscroft's carriage. But that was the only bright thought he could find.
Hold on, Venetia, he thought, urging his mount onward. Hold on.
Copyright © 2007 by Karen Hawkins