Edinburgh, spring 1812
Milne’s Court was tucked away just off the Royal Mile. It had once been a fine building, but like many tenement blocks in the Old Town, it had become run-down and squalid. Anyone with the means had migrated to the leafy environs of the New Town. Jennifer Campbell, however, had apparently recently fled in the opposite direction. As he waited at the entrance of the close, Ewan Maxwell wondered why. The place was dark and dingy, rank with the smell of too many cooking pots and far too many bodies crowded into the cramped flats. What on earth had befallen the woman to force her to live amidst such poverty? He could well understand her desire for a temporary escape from her insalubrious surroundings. He was less sure, now he was here, whether the proposal he was contemplating would suit either of them.
However, Kirstin had assured him they would be a perfect match, and Kirstin Blair was as sound a judge of character as anyone he’d ever encountered in business, with a cool head and a way of looking at things from a unique perspective. She’d have made an excellent business partner, he’d often thought, if only she’d been a man. Ewan smiled to himself at this. He must be one of the few men in Scotland to wish such a thing. Though he readily acknowledged Kirstin’s beauty, in all the years he’d known her there had never been any sort of spark between them, which was one of the reasons why she’d ruled herself out of playing the role he was desperately keen to fill.
As he checked his fob watch, he wondered if it might have been be safer to employ an actress, as he’d originally planned. Kirstin had been coy about her friend’s circumstances, revealing only that she was recently widowed. A telling curl of her lip suggested that her loss was more of a blessing than a curse. Regardless, it was too late to back out of this assignation, for here was Kirstin at last, hastening toward him and stepping lightly up the steep stairwell at a pace that gave him no option but to follow.
‘I know you’re likely thinking that this is a mistake,’ she said, turning to him in front of the door of the topmost flat, with that uncanny gift she had of reading his mind, ‘but it’s not. Jennifer is perfect for the role, and it is exactly what she needs right now.’
Kirstin knocked lightly three times on the door and stepped in without waiting for an answer. Following her, Ewan found himself in a tiny flat which consisted only of one room, which served as kitchen, dining and living room, with the bed curtained off in a recess beneath the slope of the roof. Though stripped of all but the most essential of furnishings, it was pristine, smelling of soap and, mysteriously, of lemons.
Jennifer Campbell was standing by the scrubbed wooden table. She was wearing a gown that was some muddy colour between grey and brown, the shapeless fit somehow managing to draw attention to the vibrant woman and the sinuous curves she was clearly trying to disguise. She was not a classical beauty. There was an upward slant to those big hazel eyes and her winged brows, which gave her an exotic look that contrasted with the sculpted lines of her cheekbones and her very decided nose. Her hair, which was the blue-black of a raven, seemed to be fighting to escape from the severe chignon in which it was confined. And her mouth—dear heavens, the word voluptuous was surely created for the sole purpose of describing that mouth.
‘Jennifer,’ Kirstin said, ‘this is my friend, the Marquis of Glenkin.’
As ever, Ewan had to fight the urge to look over his shoulder for his father. ‘Ewan Maxwell.’ Stepping forward, he bowed over her outstretched hand. ‘I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mrs Campbell.’
‘My lord.’ She dropped a curtsy, her own smile uncertain. ‘Will you take a seat? And Kirstin?’
‘I think it is better if I leave the pair of you to get acquainted,’ Kirstin said, smiling reassuringly at her friend. ‘Remember now, if you do choose to take Ewan up on his proposal, I’ll be at your side, so don’t fret. I’ll be back in an hour or so, by which time I hope the pair of you will have come to an arrangement.’
The door closed softly behind her. Feeling slightly stunned, Jennifer pulled out a chair at the table and indicated that her astonishing visitor take the one opposite her. ‘Kirstin is very determined we should suit, Lord Glenkin.’
Kirstin had not told her that her friend was a Highland nobleman. Jennifer had expected an Edinburgh gentleman. Ewan’s voice had the lilting, softly accented tone of a native Gaelic speaker, and he had the imposing physique of a Highland warrior, though he was clad conventionally enough in a black coat, breeches and top boots. His skin was tanned. His hair was the colour of autumn leaves, cut close to the shape of his head save for the thick, unruly quiff at the front. Dark blue eyes were set under auburn brows, with a fan of laughter lines at the corners. He had a strong nose. An equally strong chin. And a very sensual mouth. She had not expected any of this. Ewan Maxwell was a pleasant and very welcome surprise.
‘I think, in the circumstances, we can dispense with the formalities,’ he said, taking a seat. ‘I cannot accustom myself to my recently acquired title. I’d much prefer that you called me Ewan.’
‘Very well, then you must call me Jennifer, for though I am Mrs Campbell, I will never accustom myself to it. In fact I regret ever acquiring the title.’ His eyebrows shot up at this. She ought not to have been so candid—the man was a complete stranger—and Kirstin had assured her she need reveal only as much of her history as she felt she had to, but Jennifer was tired of pretending. ‘I take it that Kirstin told you I am recently widowed?’
‘She did, and implied that you considered it a blessing.’
As well as a relief. A blessed release. An escape. Jennifer had been fighting desperately to protect herself from her husband’s alcohol-fuelled assault. Something inside her had snapped. Years of submission, of placating him, had resulted only in more beatings. For the first time, she’d fought back.
So she would not mourn him. She’d suffered too much at his hands to feel sorrow or regret. She had survived the living hell that was her marriage, and she was going to make damned sure that wherever life took her, she would embrace it. She met Ewan’s gaze with a defiant tilt to her chin. ‘A fresh start is what I am determined to have,’ she said firmly.
He studied her, tapping one long finger lightly on the table. When he spoke again, his tone was gentle. ‘I can certainly offer you a temporary improvement in your living conditions.’
Jennifer looked around her at the spartan flat. ‘Trust me when I tell you that penury is preferable to luxurious misery. I am safe here. No-one knows who I am, nor cares much, either. I can be myself now.’ She smiled wryly. ‘Whatever that means.’
His brows shot up. ‘You are five-and-twenty, Kirstin tells me. Surely you must know yourself well enough by now?’
‘Until now, my life has been defined by others.’ She had been a dutiful daughter. Then she had been a dutiful wife. She had lived in fear from the very first night of her marriage, and had been desperate to escape, but everyone she had turned to had refused to help her. She had made her bed and must lie in it, apparently. Now that her bed was empty, she was free to follow her own path. It was both liberating and frightening. ‘But there are no others to dictate to me anymore,’ she said with a smile of satisfaction.
‘And you can be whoever you want?’
‘Precisely. ‘Whatever that may turn out to be.’
Across from her, Ewan smiled. ‘Can I suggest that you set sail on this voyage of discovery from more congenial surroundings? A castle in the Highlands, for example? For a month or so.’
Jennifer felt a surge of excitement course through her ‘As your guest?’
There was a gleam in Ewan’s eye that was playing havoc with her insides. And his smile—no man so fiercely attractive should have been granted such a smile, with such a hint of devilment in it that made her feel hot all over.
‘No,’ he said, ‘not as my guest. You’ll be there to play my fiancée.’
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