Miss Claire Willoughby fell in love with Harry, the Eleventh Duke of MacArran, the first time she saw him—as did every other woman in the drawing room. But it wasn’t just the incredible beauty of the man that made Claire love him. It wasn’t his shoulders, which were the width of a garden-hoe handle, or his thick blond hair and brilliant blue eyes. Nor was it his legs, well muscled from years of riding unruly horses, and exposed to their best advantage beneath the brilliant green kilt. No, it wasn’t what she saw that made her sway on her feet: it was what she heard.
At the sight of the kilt, with the silver-topped sporran hanging from his waist, the ivory-handled dirk in his heavy sock, the tartan thrown over one shoulder and pinned with the laird’s badge, she heard a lone man playing the bagpipes. She heard the wind across the fields of heather and the drone of the pipes. She heard the guns of Culloden and the cries of the widows as they grieved for their fallen men. She heard the shouts of joy at victory; the silence of misery at defeat. She heard the sound of hope at the rise of Bonnie Prince Charlie and heard the despair when he was defeated. She heard the treachery of the Campbells, and she heard the long, long wail of pain of the Scots in their centuries-old battle against the English.
All the sounds echoed in her head as she watched Harry, this man descended from generations of MacArran lairds, walk across the room. The other women saw only an incredibly handsome, dashing young man, but Claire looked beyond that and saw what she heard. She could imagine this blond giant sitting at the head of a heavy oak table, a silver goblet in his hand, flickering firelight reflected on his face as he called on his men to follow him. Here was a leader of men.
What Harry saw was a short, bosomy young American woman who was pretty, true, but what made her almost beautiful was the expression on her face. She had a look of eagerness, a look of interest in all things and everyone. When she looked at Harry he felt that he was the only one on earth worth listening to. There was curiosity and intelligence in her big brown eyes. Her small, trim body moved quickly, and she walked with a purposefulness that most women didn’t possess.
Harry quickly came to like the fact that Claire was a girl of action. She couldn’t sit still even for a moment and always wanted to go places and see things. Claire suggested outings and ordered the lunch and all Harry and his friends had to do was show up. She made him laugh and she entertained him. Sometimes she talked too much about Scotland’s history, but he found it highly amusing that recounting some battle that had taken place over a hundred years ago could bring tears to her eyes. There seemed to be a hundred dead men whom she considered heroic figures, who she said had led lives of great bravery and importance. When she talked of these men, her eyes turned dreamy and unfocused—so Harry spent that time contemplating her lovely bosom.
It was when she mentioned that Harry’s dead brother was one of her heroes that he sucked a cherry pit down his windpipe and nearly choked to death. Miss Claire Willoughby, never at a loss for action, pushed him over a chair so his belly slammed into the back of it, then she hit him between the shoulder blades so hard the pit flew across the drawing room to land with a splash in the punch bowl.
It was that action that made Harry know Claire was right for the job. Bramley House needed a mistress who could think and react quickly. And all of Harry’s houses needed a mistress who had Claire’s money.
As for Claire, she was stunned at having a Scottish duke pay attention to her. When she was in Harry’s presence, she could hardly breathe. She listened to him and looked at him and smiled at him. She said what she hoped he wanted to hear and did what she hoped he wanted her to do. And when she was out of his sight, she thought about him and sighed.
Claire’s mother was beside herself with delight when she found out that her daughter was pining for a man who was a duke. “But he’s also the laird of Clan MacArran,” Claire said, but that meant nothing to her mother.
Arva Willoughby had once been a great beauty and now she didn’t seem to notice that her flesh bulged above and below her corset. She wasn’t going to allow her daughter, who was much too studious for Arva’s taste, to miss an opportunity such as this. Arva did everything in her power to instruct her daughter in the art of winning a man.
For one thing, Arva didn’t allow the young people to spend time alone together. Arva said that a man’s interest was piqued by absence, not by seeing him every day. She said that a woman saw enough of her husband after they were married, she didn’t need to see him before the marriage too.
“Mother,” Claire said, exasperation in her voice. “The duke has not asked me to marry him and how do I know if I want to marry him if I don’t get to know him?”
As usual, Arva had an answer for everything. “You may think you know about life because you’ve spent your few years with your nose in a book, but you know nothing whatever about men and women.”
Claire was too happy to allow her mother’s pessimism to upset her. She smiled and thought of Harry and his ancestors striding across the Scottish Highlands.
It was only after she’d known Harry for over a month that Claire began to have doubts. “Mother, Harry and I never seem to have anything to talk about. He listens to me and smiles at me, but he never comments on what I say. Sometimes I think His Grace doesn’t even know who Bonnie Prince Charlie is.”
“My dear child, whatever are you complaining about? That young man is divine looking and he’s a duke. What more could you want?”
“Someone to talk—”
“Hah!” Arva snorted. “What does conversation matter in a marriage? After the first year you never so much as say more than pass the butter, and if you have good servants you don’t need to say that much. Your father and I haven’t spoken to each other in years and we love each other madly.”
Claire looked down at her book.
sp; Arva put her hand under her child’s chin. “I know what it’s like to be young and in love. You have doubts. We all do at your age. But, trust me, there’s nothing to worry about. Your young duke is handsome, kind, thoughtful—just look at the flowers he sent to you last week—he is everything a woman could ask for. And if he doesn’t talk a great deal, that’s to your advantage. And you say he listens to you? My dear, a man who listens to a woman is worth his price in diamonds.”
Claire gave her mother a weak smile and Arva took the book from her hands. “You’ll ruin your eyes reading so much.” She looked at the cover. “And who is Captain Baker?” she asked, naming the author of the book.
“An explorer. The greatest explorer the world has ever known. It’s rumored that he’s a relative of the duke’s.”
Arva looked at the light in her daughter’s eyes and frowned. “Dear, I know what it’s like to dream. I, too, had dreams, but I’ve learned some things in my life. A woman’s entire future depends on her husband. These men you dream about, these…” She looked about Claire’s bedroom, full of books that were packed and unpacked in trunks wherever the Willoughbys went. “These inventors and artists and writers and this one, this explorer, they aren’t men you can live with. There are men you live with and men you—Well, never mind, you’ll find out about that part of life after you are married. I won’t have to tell you a thing and I daresay young Harry is worldly enough to be understanding.”
Claire wasn’t sure what her mother was talking about, but she knew she didn’t like it. “I want to love my husband.”
“Of course you do. And you love Harry, don’t you? How could you not?”
Claire thought of Harry, of the way he looked in his kilt, of the way he looked at her with his blue eyes.
Arva smiled at her daughter. “And there are other considerations. Think, Claire, what it will be like to be a duchess. Your every whim taken care of before you know you want it. You’ll be able to meet all these wayward creatures you read about. How could they turn down an invitation from a duchess? You will have freedom, Claire, freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it.” The smile left her face. “And there is the little matter of your grandfather’s will. Your father and I approve of young Harry and if you marry him, you will receive your inheritance. If you do not…” She smiled again. “I’m not threatening you, dear, you do what you must, but there is your little sister to consider.”
With that Arva swept from her daughter’s room, leaving Claire alone. Sometimes her mother seemed like a silly, frivolous woman, a woman of little education and not much brain power. But sometimes her mother almost frightened Claire.
Claire put Captain Baker’s book aside and smoothed her dress. Whatever was she concerned about? Harry, duke of MacArran, was a divine man and, yes, she did love him. As her mother said, how could she not love a man like Harry? There wasn’t a thing wrong with him. If a woman were to create the perfect man, she would invent Harry.
Claire laughed aloud. She was being silly. She was in love with Harry and she was probably going to be a duchess. She was the happiest, luckiest young woman in the world.
The next Sunday afternoon Harry took Claire out alone on a lake, rowed her to a pretty little island in the middle, and helped her from the little boat. Claire sat upright on a tartan robe that Harry had brought for her, her hands folded on her lap, while he sprawled in the grass beside her. He wore an old-fashioned linen shirt with huge gathered sleeves. The linen looked as if it had been washed a thousand times and was a soft yellow with age. It was laced at the neck with a drawstring and Harry had left it open so that part of his smooth skin was exposed. He wore his green kilt, not the drawing room kilt, but one that was faded with age and use. He made no concessions in his movements to the fact that what he was wearing was actually a skirt; he sat with his legs apart, mounted horses with his usual quick, strong gestures (it was rumored that one young lady had fainted the first time she saw the kilt-clad young duke mount his horse). Now he sprawled on the grass, his kilt spread about him, a four-inch-wide belt about his waist, and looked at Claire.
“I’ve grown rather fond of you, you know.”
Claire’s heart was in her throat, pounding. She didn’t know if it was the man himself, or what he represented to her, or, as her brat of a sister said, if it was the sheer beauty of him, but Harry did odd things to her insides. “I…like you too,” she said.
“I was wondering if you’d like to marry me.”
Claire turned to him, her eyes opened in shock. She had been expecting this, hoping for this moment, but it was still a shock. There was nothing she could think of to say.
“I know it’s asking a great deal,” Harry continued. “I have a few monstrous pieces of property, including a hideous old house called Bramley. It’s falling apart, and there are a few other problems in my life as well, but I do rather like you.”
Claire began to breathe again, and she tried to swallow the lump in her throat. She wanted to recover herself before she answered. There were times, when she was away from Harry, that she had doubts about their suitability for each other, but not when she was with him. When she was with him, she could only see him and hear the bagpipes in her head.
She hesitated, not wanting to appear too eager to become his wife. Of course, what she was thinking, as she looked at his strong legs, was that she would climb a snow-covered mountain barefoot if she could marry this heavenly man and become a Scottish duchess. “Is your house very old?” she asked, trying not to allow her voice to squeak.
Harry leaned his head back, catching the warmth of the sun on his face. His lashes were quite long and thick. “I don’t remember. Bramley was built in twelve hundred, thirteen hundred, something like that.”
“It’s a castle?”