One week later
The formal dinner, due to take place in three days’ time, would provide the first acid test of their faux engagement. Since arriving, Jennifer had already been introduced to Ewan’s household: the ancient, deaf aunt who resided in the castle and in theory acted as hostess; his ghillie; and also his nearest neighbours, a pair of newlyweds who were far more interested in each other than anyone else. None of these encounters had taxed her acting skills. More important, none had required Jennifer and Ewan to describe their burgeoning romance. But in a few evenings time, with thirty guests invited to dinner, they would have to be on their mettle.
The weather had remained settled since her arrival, allowing them to spend much of their time outdoors, touring Ewan’s vast estates. Jennifer’s skin glowed from exposure to the fresh Highland air, such a contrast to sooty Edinburgh. All the hours walking together, occasionally even climbing to the summit of the gentler Highland peaks, had given her a hearty appetite, and she was sleeping like a log. ‘In fact,’ she said, as she and Ewan reached the far end of the lochan they’d been skirting, ‘I think I must have a wee touch of Highland blood in me somewhere.’
‘Only a tiny dram,’ he said, laughing at her. ‘Your accent is atrocious.’
‘While yours has become broader every day. Your London friends won’t recognise you when you next visit.’
‘Aye, they’ll think me a savage set loose on the ton!’
Ewan sat down on the heather-clad bank which bordered the water. In the sunlight, his hair gleamed with fiery streaks, and his eyes seemed impossibly blue. The rough stubble on his chin gave him a wilder appearance, and the open shirt he wore revealed a tanned throat. The shirt was white cambric, sweat making it cling to his back and his chest. His plaid fell between his legs, showing her a pair of tanned knees and giving her a glimpse of tanned thigh when he adjusted his position, which she knew she shouldn’t be looking at – but she looked all the same. ‘You look like master of all you survey,’ Jennifer said, sitting down beside him. ‘Are you?’
‘Is all this mine, do you mean? Pretty much, as far as the eye can see, though it’s hardly prime land. It sustains sheep and some hardy cattle, but little else.’
Sunlight dappled the water. Jennifer shaded her eyes, gazing out at the landscape, which was myriad shades of golden brown and green hues, for the heather was not yet flowering, the bracken not yet unfurled. ‘It is so beautiful though.’
‘It is,’ Ewan said, ‘the view close up most especially.’ He reached out to tuck a stray strand of her hair behind her ear. ‘You grow more lovely every day.’
Jennifer coloured. ‘There’s no need to compliment me, there’s no-one to hear.’
‘It’s not a compliment, it’s the truth, plain and simple. Our Highland air suits you.’
‘Thank you. It’s only been a week, but I feel so much better already.’
‘The next three are certain to be a mad whirl of engagements, now that word has spread of your presence here, not to mention the ceilidh.’ Ewan plucked a blade of grass and began to tie it into a complicated knot. ‘I thought myself a social animal, but I confess, I’d rather spend a bit more time like this, just the two of us, before the madness commences.’
‘Are you worried that I’ll not be convincing, that I need more practice?’
‘Not a whit of it. I’m just being selfish.’ He threw the grass away, lying back on his side, his head resting on his hand. ‘Though I must say, for all the time we’ve spent together with me regaling you with stories of my travels to far-flung places, you’ve told me virtually nothing of yourself. I don’t even know if you are Edinburgh born-and-bred.’
‘And you’re family live in the city?’
Jennifer shrugged. ‘I told you, my family are as good as dead to me.’
‘Your choice, I presume?’
She shrugged again. ‘Their choice, though they would deny it.’ She sighed. ‘The whys and the wherefores don’t matter. Not any more.’
He frowned at that. ‘I wasn’t prying, Jennifer, I was keen to know you a little better, that’s all.’
‘Why? I’m not a permanent fixture in your life. We’re not really engaged, but we do have to spend the next three weeks together playing a devoted couple. I’d rather not reveal anything that might endanger that.’
He sat up, his brows drawn together in a deep frown. ‘I like your company, I thought that was obvious. I’m a man of the world, I doubt there are any skeletons lurking in your past which would make me think less of you.’
She longed to believe him, was absurdly tempted to confide in him. Yet despite this fresh start of hers, she had not yet managed to shed the guilt which had been beaten into her—literally in Sandy’s case, metaphorically in the case of his parents and hers. Her rational self knew that only her husband was responsible for what he had done to her, but she still felt ashamed. Besides which, there was the unanswered question of whether she had contributed to his demise.
No, she couldn’t do it. Ewan may not judge her as those others had done, but he would pity her, and she couldn’t bear that. He thought her so strong. He not only desired her, but he liked her. She didn’t want him to think her the poor creature she had left behind, the victim who had been too afraid to defend herself. So she forced a fixed smile, though she felt, ridiculously, like crying. ‘We’re getting on just fine as we are. Why risk rocking the boat?’
There was merit in what she said, Ewan could see that. He was in danger of losing sight of the reason he had asked her here, to act as a shield from an unwanted marriage. That he was, in the process, providing her with the breathing space required to begin piecing together her life, had begun to feel inexplicably important. But he knew that ought to remain secondary to protecting his own future.
He gazed out at the lochan, noting that the geese which arrived every year had started to flock on the far shore. Summer was showing signs of an early arrival, though he knew from his youth here that even in May, it wasn’t too late for snow. Slanting a look at Jennifer, sitting up straight, her hands clasped tightly on her lap, he could see she was struggling not to cry. He wanted to pull her into his arms and tell her that it would be all right, but he knew that was preposterous. Whatever she had suffered, he could not begin to guess, and would not be so arrogant as to claim to be able to miraculously heal her.
He cursed her family, having no doubt that the estrangement was their fault. She had entered into a loveless marriage—most likely at their behest, he deduced. But she was a widow now, and was still determined to remain estranged from them. Why? Questions, he had a hundred questions, but he would not pry into territory she was determined to put behind her. He did like her, he liked her rather a lot, if he was honest with himself. He wasn’t looking forward to her leaving at the end of their allotted time, though he had no idea how to persuade her to linger, nor what he meant by that.
He decided to adopt the strategy which had served him so well in business—play along with what was agreed and bide his time until he had hatched an alternative plan. He could do that. So Ewan took Jennifer’s hand in his, giving her a gentle shake. ‘We came out here to discuss the upcoming dinner, not to dwell on the past. We’ve not yet finalised the heart-achingly romantic tale of how we met.’
‘You’re right, we need to concentrate on maintaining your true bachelor status, in the short term at least.’ Her fingers curled around his. ‘I’m sorry, Ewan.’
He lifted her hand to his mouth, pressing a kiss on her knuckles. ‘It is I who should apologise. I’ve no right to be sticking my nose into your personal affairs.’
‘You can have no idea how many times I fervently wished certain individuals had done exactly that. But even when I begged them…’ Jennifer broke off, shaking her head. ‘Enough of my history. Let us concentrate on inventing ours. I think we agreed that we met in London, didn’t we? And that I could not possibly be a widow. Tell me, was it love at first sight? It was for me.’
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